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Digitize, synchronize and mobilize: How to develop a digital incident response playbook

Digital playbooks allow incident response coordinators to plan, execute and monitor their operations through their tablets, smartphones, or laptops


Digital playbooks allow team members to easily collaborate, stay connected and understand who’s in charge of what at any time.

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By Barry Duplantis

Whether working with SWAT on a high-risk situation or with FEMA and local first responders in response to a damaging weather event, everyone must be on the same page and in constant communication during a crisis. That can be tough when using physical incident response playbooks, which require flipping through hundreds of pages in bulky three-ring binders that can be tough to carry around and are easily misplaced.

Real-time situations need real-time solutions. That’s why it’s imperative that departments migrate to digital playbooks that allow team members to easily collaborate, stay connected and understand who’s in charge of what at any time.

Digital playbooks allow incident response coordinators and other first responders to plan, execute and monitor their operations through their tablets, smartphones, or laptops. They can receive status updates in real-time and quickly determine what needs to happen during an event without having to sift through massive binders. Team members can see who owns what task, the real-time status of the item and communicate across agencies. As the process is executed, everything is automatically documented for future improvements and reference.

Building a digital incident response playbook

Creating a digital incident response playbook is easier than some may think. Agencies can start by following the following steps.

1. Establish ownership

First, organizations should identify the person or people in charge of developing and managing the playbook. Owners should be members of whichever agencies will be involved in the response – for example, the ownership of a natural disaster incident response playbook should be comprised of members of state and local law enforcement and federal agencies. Members should work closely to outline components that should be included in the playbook.

2. Create “runs”

Next, owners should create “runs” and assign run ownership. A typical playbook is composed of a series of checklists that outline critical tasks. A “run” is the process by which a checklist is completed from start to finish. Different team members will take ownership of different runs depending on their roles and expertise; for example, in the event of a fire, an individual may be assigned a run that involves cordoning off the surrounding area of the incident.

3. Identify technology

Identifying the right technology platform is critical. It should not be email – there’s no time for responders to attempt to navigate through hundreds of emails, with new messages coming in by the second. Technology platforms should provide the ability to communicate asynchronously or in real-time via a chat function and should include robust security that prevents non-team members from being able to access the playbook or the conversations in the chat. User interfaces should be clean, information should be easy to find and the playbook should be accessible through any device.

4. Map out operational sequences

Digital playbooks allow agencies to create clearly defined linear workflows that lay out the sequences of events that need to happen in each incident response. Having this information easily accessible allows commanders and all other team members to understand the path to success and who is involved in getting there. For instance, if a natural disaster occurs, the playbook can show who needs to be contacted (and when), who needs to set up their posts (and where), and who oversees which aspects of the operation.

5. Develop keyword triggers

With a digital playbook, each step of the workflow can be automatically triggered by specific keywords that set off a series of alerts to let individual team members know it’s their time to step up. For example, entering the words “officer down” into the system will immediately set off a workflow chain that puts the necessary response in motion. People involved in the first phase of the incident response will be notified via their mobile devices that there is a situation and understand what steps need to be taken to support response efforts. Another alert will be generated for the next phase of the operation, and so on.

6. Perform periodic reviews

Unlike their paper counterparts, digital playbooks can be easily updated and revised as necessary. Owners should review their playbooks at the end of each incident or at least quarterly to determine what worked well, what could be improved, and where things can be streamlined even further. They should strive for continuous improvement that will lead to better outcomes for future incidents.

Increased chance for successful outcomes

An incident response playbook is like a reserve parachute. Hopefully, agencies will never need to open it. But if they do, they need it to be easily and readily accessible. A digital incident response playbook works the same way; it helps law enforcement organizations respond to situations quickly and increases their chances for successful outcomes.

NEXT: On-demand webinar: The first 15 minutes of disaster: Creating order from chaos

About the author

Barry Duplantis is vice president and general manager for the North American Public Sector, Mattermost.