The Inauguration of President Donald Trump came and went with considerable pomp and fanfare. (And all the predictions that I warned against of a catastrophic, history-changing event didn’t come true.) But we did see a not insignificant amount of violence during the anti-Trump protests. Battle tracking the riots for 13 hours on Friday, our Analysis & Control Element (ACE) teams in Austin, Texas and online saw some good, some bad, and some ugly. As the ACE Chief, here’s my After Action Review in a pretty typical format — a list of things that need to be sustained and things that need improvement for the future. Take these lessons learned and apply them to your own local emergency scenarios.
- Our group of volunteers was stellar. For the first time, Forward Observer had a physical ACE location in Austin, which allowed a dozen volunteers to drop in and help out. In previous exercises for the Ferguson riots and GOP Convention protests, we had mostly done everything online. That’s better than nothing, but it certainly had its limitations. In this exercise, having a physical ACE allowed me to direct collection and update my priority intelligence requirements in real time for a real staff. That interpersonal connection greatly enabled communication, whether it was for the guys looking for pictures and locations on Twitter or Periscope, or the guys watching the traffic cameras in DC, or the guy looking at Order of Battle for the mobilized DC National Guard. Several of the volunteers were graduates of the SHTF Intelligence Course (training calendar), so they had a better idea of the battle rhythm, and it was definitely a worthwhile experience for them to put theory into practice for a real-world scenario.
- This group of volunteers at the Austin ACE were mostly tech savvy, and a few had prior military experience. Understanding my PIRs, they were able to immediately begin contributing and required little to no oversight. When you’re running your own ACE, this is a must because the ACE Chief really doesn’t have time for remedial training. There were opportunities to provide some insight and direction, but not having to hover over anyone’s shoulder made our work much easier. I cannot say enough good things about this team. They all showed up motivated, whether they stayed for a couple hours or eight.
- Having the Virtual ACE running in different channels on Unseen greatly aided our ability to have a much larger collection coverage. With no more than eight analysts sitting in the Austin ACE at any given time, we’re working with a maximum of eight pairs of eyes trying to cover a significant portion of DC. The Virtual ACE allowed us to coordinate with other collectors and receive incoming information from those on the ground in DC, as well as across the nation. That is certainly a luxury, but if you ever have to battle track your own local scenario, you’ll quickly understand how short-staffed you can become.
- This time around, we were able to expand our coverage of social media platforms. Following the accounts who live video streamed parts of the protests and riots was really pivotal for us to be able to know what was going on at any given location. And had we a staff large enough to monitor more of these social media accounts, we could have produced a much higher volume of accurate information, which results in more of the very valuable real-time intelligence we set out to produce.
- You need a white board. Home Depot and Lowe’s both carry an 8-feet by 4-feet white panel board for $13-15. Buy one for your ACE. Although it’s not technically sold as a whiteboard, it’s the same material and it was critical to my being able to track the tasks of the ACE staff, write out my intelligence requirements, and also put notes out for everyone to read. Buy a pack of dry erase markers and a white board eraser, and for 20 bucks you have a central part of your ACE equipment.
- Overall, I think we did a very good job considering we had a group of volunteers who were largely inexperienced and had to learn ‘on the job’ while finding their niche in the larger effort. Because this was thrown together about a week in advance and we really didn’t know if we would have five people or fifty people show up on Friday, I’m really proud of what we accomplished and I’m looking forward to the next training opportunity. I cannot stress this enough: good organization, good training, motivated teammates, and a capable ACE Chief at the wheel are your keys to success.
- Being that this was the first physical ACE exercise and it was thrown together at basically the last minute, there was plenty of room for improvement — and it all absolutely falls on me. The first real mistake I made was not having a spreadsheet of social media accounts along with their associated protest groups and locations. We knew of some of the more popular accounts and after a while, we knew which accounts were producing accurate and timely information. If this exercise were days or weeks long, we could have even gone into this spreadsheet and provided reliability grades so we could prioritize our collection. In that way, I feel like we wasted some time and resources by scouring social media for anything instead of having an automated tool that could capture the content of the top producing accounts. One very minor problem we ran into was having the ability to get information about an outbreak of violence, but not being able to quickly navigate to the social media feeds that had been previously confirmed in that area. That would have made collection much easier. What I would do differently in the future is not only have the spreadsheet, but also I need to look into either acquiring or building some tools to help us map out the social media landscape, so to speak.
- A few major lesson learned for me — and if they sound pretty obvious it’s because they are very obvious — include the fact that when the protests/riots began to die down on Friday night, a lot of the media packed up and covered something else. This greatly reduced our access to information, so it’s very fair to point out that we’ll need to get aggressive with other methods of collection — namely human intelligence — in our local scenarios. And that brings up another very important point that I had not immediately considered — once cell phone batteries began to run out, so did a lot of the social media feeds. Because we had limited access to first responder radio traffic, we had an over reliance on social media. When reporters and social media stop reporting, it can look as if there are no longer real issues on the ground. For about an hour, we were scratching our heads and wondering, “Why did everything just seem to cut off?” And this brings up the next point that a lack of reporting doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of incidents. The fact of the matter is that low level violence was still occurring even though few people, if any, were reporting it. In the future, I hope to be able to take a team and travel to these locations so we can increase our ability to gather intelligence information. In these now three exercises, we’ve been aided by pretty good access to timely information, but we could easily double or triple (or more) the amount of information we collect if we have our staff and toys on-site.
- Another thing that we saw is that traffic cameras are great for confirming or denying the presence of crowds or certain activities. But they don’t work as well in inclement weather, and after nightfall become much less useful. Our vision was certainly impaired during the night as these traffic cameras could not longer provide clear views of the area.
- My last area of improvement is our mapping software. We used GoogleEarth screenshots during the Ferguson riots, and then I couldn’t get a mapping tool to work during the GOP Convention protests, so it was back to GoogleEarth screenshots. This time around, I purchased a new mapping tool, which was a large improvement. (Check out the map here: https://fostaging.wpengine.com/inaugural). My next goal is to get our web guys to custom build a better live mapping tool so that we can better customize views and be able to manipulate map layers so you can view events on the map by time, or over time, or by the different types of events (something CIDNE-esque for those who have experience there). That’s going to cost some money, so we definitely appreciate your support and look forward to putting into action in the future.
The last thing that I have to add for your general consumption is that we need to be practicing these skills. Friday night and into the weekend presented a handful of opportunities to battle track these protests/riots across the country, whether it was Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and probably other places that encountered some violence. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that battle tracking is the panacea to our problems during civil disruptions, however, ensuring that we (1) have access to timely information and (2) know what to do with that information to best aid our safety is about the best panacea we can hope to have in these kinds of scenarios. And for those who expect to encounter protests or riots in the future and have a plan to escape before it becomes too dangerous to leave, you’re going to need these skills, too. The ability to confirm or deny that a route is navigable is central to your ability to escape and evade trouble. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that pretty succinctly describes all conflict…
In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Also here’s a special thanks to CATI Armor, who sponsored this event by covering the cost of the hotel meeting room. They’ve been supporters for Forward Observer from the start, they’re run by great folks, and they deserve your business.