Virtual Operations Support Team
Jun 15, 2012

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The Scenario
You are in the midst of responding to a major incident, your response organization has been fully activated, your plan has worked reasonably well so far, for which you are thankful. External communication has been fairly traditional, with information being released periodically and the team is responding to questions as best they can. But is this enough? Largely unknown to you, people are commenting and speculating about the incident (and the response) on social networks – sometimes relaying false information. There is a lot of Twitter and Facebook activity floating around, plus photographs posted on Flickr and videos posted to YouTube.

You don’t see this information directly because you don’t have time to look for it, but you know it’s there because the radio and television reports are quoting it. Is it possible to tap into this stream and use it in a more meaningful way? Is there a need? Could it increase situational awareness, improve your response, identify potential issues before they are reported in the media? This is all so new and you only have limited resources, so the challenge is daunting; yet, there is a potential solution to this challenge.

The Solution
One potential solution for dealing more ­effectively with social media during the heat of a response is known as a “Virtual Operations Support Team” – a concept being successfully tested and used in the United States and New Zealand (see FrontLine’s online article for links). This concept involves farming out the monitoring of social media to enhance one’s situational awareness about the incident and potential emerging issues. It also involves engaging the social networks to help deliver accurate key information about the incident and the response more effectively. This task is performed by fellow emergency managers and technical specialists who are not directly involved with the response.

If this is possible, how can it be made available to support Canadians who are responding to emergency incidents?

Developing the Solution
A Virtual Operations Support Team is comprised of emergency managers and technical specialists, but it is not enough to simply identify these individuals. To work effectively there needs to be a clear understanding of the deliverables, the functions team members are to perform, and the organizational structure within which they will carry out this work. There is also a matter of training, and ­possibly accreditation, so that emergency managers who are considering utilizing such a resource can be assured that the team members are fully capable of performing their assigned tasks. Teams formed in other parts of the world have addressed these issues, so there is good resource material available; but, it is still necessary to decide if and how a Virtual Operations Support Team (or teams) will operate in Canada.

Who can do this? How Can We do this?… and How can You Get Involved?
The concept of a Canadian Virtual Operations Support Team was first introduced in May 2012 by Patrice Cloutier in the Crisis and Emergency Communications blog channel of Partnerships Toward Safer ­Communities – Online (PTSC-Online). His article, entitled Creating a Canadian Virtual Operations Support Team (CanVOST), generated a significant amount of interest in the concept. A follow-up article, entitled More on ­Creating the CanVOST was published in June. Cloutier, a Communications Strategist with the Ontario government, is recognized for his abilities as a communicator specializing in crisis communication and emergency management. He has considerable experience dealing with events such as the G8 and G20 summits, and he is an instructor and frequent guest speaker on crisis and emergency communications, with a focus on social media.

Cloutier’s articles have received over 1000 views and several positive comments, and have resulted in identifying several individuals who are interested in investigating the development of such a team.

Partnerships Toward Safer Communities – Online, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), and ­managed by myself, saw potential in the concept and offered PTSC-Online communication and collaboration tools to help interested individuals work together at defining the implementation of this ­concept in Canada.

PTSC-Online was developed by CAFC with financial support from Public Safety Canada to help Canadians responsible for emergency management, business continuity and critical infrastructure protection ­programs, network more effectively, share best practices, and improve their respective programs. The concept of a Virtual Operations Support Team certainly has the potential to help improve Canadian emergency management programs. A mini community space, has therefore been created within PTSC-Online for this purpose. It includes a “Developing CanVOST” blog channel to provide updates on developing the concept, a calendar to schedule and plan significant milestones required to investigate and develop the ­concept, another calendar to announce upcoming events, and a CanVOST wiki to provide a place to store and fine tune resources required to set up and operate a Canadian Virtual Operations Support Team.

Of course, CanVOST remains at the ­conceptual level in the minds of emergency managers and technical specialists who feel it can become a reality and a valuable support to Canadian emergency management programs. So, how do we get from discussing the concept to having a well-tuned virtual operations support team up and ­running? Supporters have met via web ­conference to discuss this, and are consolidating their ideas in the PTSC-Online CanVOST space.

It is important, both for the credibility of the process and its end result, that the right organizations and ­representatives be engaged from the outset.

The next step may be to quantify the interest in and support for CanVOST and define what the finished product might look like. The following step, if the project ­identifies sufficient demand and support, should then be to create and test a pilot virtual ops support team. This test team should be fully operational and tested to support response to a major emergency. This pilot project would then be used to train and fine tune a virtual operations support team and evaluate if it should continue in operation or be modified in any ways.

Please share information about CanVOST with those who may be interested and, if you would like to participate, please visit the web site and sign up to be added to the list of CanVOST supporters. Instructions and links on how to do this are found in the CanVOST space. 

William McKay is the principal of MacKay Emergency Management Consulting Inc.
He can be contacted through the web site at
© FrontLine Security 2012