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NEMA Information Sharing Task Force

Meet a MemberJoel-headshot
Joel Thomas
Chair, NEMA Information Sharing Task Force
CEO, SPIN Global

What sparked the formation of the Information Sharing Task Force?

As part of my support for the National Information Sharing Consortium, I was sitting in the Private Sector Committee at the 2015 Annual Forum in Miami observing the dialogue around information sharing and felt like many of the ingredients for success were all there, but needed to be pulled together. So I stood up and made some remarks and then Brock Long (former Private Sector Committee chair) nominated me to run the Task Force. That’s what I get for speaking up at the Annual Forum! The task force was formed specifically to try and move the needle in the national dialogue around public-private sector engagement in tangible and measurable ways. The idea is that perhaps we can learn from what has worked, develop what’s missing, and scale it.

What makes the task force’s approach unique?

We have two primary activity streams. The first involves working with FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center to influence development of a national vision and a common operating process that is inclusive and makes sense. We’re expanding on FEMA’s work by developing operational integration templates for energy/ESF12, communications/ESF2, retail sector, water sector and others. Each template is focused on providing clarity for the integration of public-private sector planning, exercise, response and recovery activities. Our intent is to publish voluntary guidance to NEMA membership on how to establish an effective public-private sector information sharing capability.

The second activity stream is focused on practical application and testing of the various hypotheses developed in the first activity stream through a series of exercises. Three exercises have been selected by the Task Force, including the DOE Clearpath IV exercise which just occurred, the NISC Checkpoint 16 virtual exercise on May 11 – to sign up, go – and the Cascadia Rising exercise in June that includes players in the Pacific Northwest. The focus of these exercises is to vet the work products created to date, test and evaluate the various templates and models and develop recommendations for the benefit of the NEMA membership.

How is the relationship today between the public and private sectors different from 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Is it different?

In my view, there is a healthy recognition now among governments officials that private sector is a MUST HAVE partner. I think the private sector is more than willing to join forces and always has been, but has been historically frustrated by lack of a clear engagement strategy at various levels of government as well as inefficiencies. Right now is an opportune time where there is interest, and key players and critical pieces of the puzzle are all on the table. They just need to be assembled – and we have got to have the eye of the tiger to see this thing through!

Is that part of the challenge and why information sharing between the public and private sectors can be difficult?

Part of the challenge is that folks have been hungry for information, but without a clear sense of how they would use it, when it would be used, by whom, in what format, and for what purpose. In the absence of a clear model that defines how we work together – delineates decision needs at various phases of operations, shared mission priorities, cross-sector dependencies, resource needs and allocation, etc. – then it’s impossible to determine cross-cutting priority information requirements and get people to sign up for sharing information at all.

What else makes it tough to address?

The toughest thing is the fact that there is too much noise, lots of talk, and little action and lack of will to do the hardest thing in the midst of competing priorities. As a result, people often migrate to “bright shiny objects”, thinking that the next technology will solve the problem. But that’s the lazy path. As a tech SME, I can tell you very clearly that the problem we are dealing with is a human interoperability problem, not a technical interoperability problem. Give me a clear vision for operational coordination between public and private sector, and I can write up tech specifications that any vendor in the country can use to configure their technology to support an organization’s mission.

What are outcomes you’d like to see from the task force?

Beyond the two activity streams, I’m envisioning this task force providing thought leadership and development of voluntary guidance for NEMA membership on how to jump-start their public-private information sharing efforts. I’m envisioning model planning processes, operational coordination templates for specified ESFs/sectors/functional areas (e.g. energy, communications) and access to model web application templates.

Are we talking about a common operating picture?

No, I don’t believe in common operating pictures. Sorry folks, Santa Claus ain’t real. I am a fan of doing the hard work in forums such as NEMA provides to develop something more akin to a common operating process (human interoperability!!). That gives folks flexibility in how they implement, and then it can empower organizations with web based tools and templates to configure their own user-defined operating picture using any number of commercial or government off the shelf technologies.

How’s the work going so far?

The results we have seen in three months of meeting have been astounding. We have checked the box for activity stream one. In the next few months, we hope to participate in exercises and see to what tools and templates are readily available that can already support the established vision with limited configuration. At the end of the day, we hope to publish our findings and recommendations to NEMA membership for comment. We need to see that the findings aren’t just ours, but are validated by the whole community.

What in your background brought you to the information sharing issue?

I am passionate about improving disaster preparedness, and believe that coordination is one of the principle challenges of our day. Joint planning and effective information management can really aid the solution. In the last several years, I’ve learned this as I worked as contractor to various organizations, including DHS Science and Technology. I continue to support the National Information Sharing Consortium in partnership with G&H International. As a millennial (barely), I’m acutely aware of how much more efficient things COULD be if information and technologies were better utilized, and I want to help make that a reality in the public safety community.