When it comes to emergency management, the last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out what information should be sent out, when it should be sent, and via which communication method. Managers should already have a concrete plan in place for determining how long to wait before communicating important information to the public while still ensuring their safety is a priority.
Key communication efforts during emergency scenarios can be divided into three stages. In each stage there are several tasks that should be considered to ensure the emergency management team is communicating effectively with all necessary stakeholders within an appropriate amount of time, depending on the nature of the emergency.
Let’s look at these three stages of emergency communications.
Stage 1: Priority Communication
First things first: as soon as a crisis hits, what must immediately be determined is who is directly impacted and what needs to be done in order to communicate with these people as soon as possible. These people could be in an area where an impending weather event is expected to have the strongest impact; they could be in immediate danger due to a bomb threat; or they could be in located in an exclusion zone for a HazMat incident.
As soon as a threat is made known to emergency managers, this is when any emergency notification system should be activated in preparation for sending any mass communications to the public. The emergency management team must then determine the level of threat to the public and the best method for distributing information. Warnings can be sent out to the public through many different channels, among them email, SMS, telephone calls, and social media.
These communication methods differ in terms of the level of reach they are able to provide as well as the immediacy in which stakeholders receive these notifications. Some methods may be better than others for sending out priority notifications.
For example, a lot of people use social media on a daily basis, however they may not know to check it for updates or alerts when it comes to an emergency. It may be more efficient to send a mass text blast instead which you can be sure will send the information directly to the recipient in the form of a notification on their phone.
In this case, while social media may have the highest overall reach, SMS messaging has a greater chance for near immediate receipt. When all is said and done, the more communication methods you use to provide your emergency notifications, the better chance that most recipients will receive it in time.
What should be included in these initial emergency alerts?
These alerts should contain only the most necessary information in regard to the nature of the current situation and any measures that should be taken to ensure safety for themselves and others. Also, it may be a good idea to provide notification recipients an estimation of when they can expect further communications or updates on the emergency to minimize panic and confusion.
No matter the emergency, when the affected people have been identified they should be made aware of the situation quickly so they can enact their own safety procedures such as taking shelter or evacuating, if that measure is warranted. The faster the emergency notification reaches them, the more time there is to prepare as best they can to try and minimize any potential damage to person or property.
Stage 2: Internal Communication and Strategizing
The second stage of the emergency communications process involves primarily the emergency management team as well as any other appropriate authorities. Efficient internal communication processes are integral to the successful management of a crisis.
The sharing of data becomes essential to ensuring all known information regarding the incident is made available to decision-makers so any necessary actions can be taken as swiftly as possible.
This is where an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) comes in.
An EOC should be the main hub of information during an emergency where all data coming in must pass through before reaching its end destination. The EOC, having been activated at the outset of the emergency, is responsible for providing this information to all emergency management stakeholders and ensuring they have the most up-to-date facts and figures.
A notification system can also aid in this dissemination of information as EOC managers can send out necessary updates to groups of people at once through multiple channels. Such a system may also allow the EOC to request the recipients confirm they have received the new information provided by the EOC. This can assist the EOC with determining if everyone has the correct information at any given moment, which can be especially useful when new data is coming in from many different sources at once and the EOC needs to be sure everyone is up to speed.
In this phase of emergency communications, officials will need to be strategizing as to the best course of action to take for mitigating the incident and ensuring the least amount of damage possible. Unfortunately, it may not be possible for officials to be in the same location throughout the incident so there needs to be a secure communication method available for discussing possibly sensitive information. Encrypted emails, while secure, present a challenge in terms of efficient communication. A better choice may be to hold a teleconference on a secure line where decisions can be made quickly and everyone is sure to be on the same page.
There will inevitably be a lot going on in the EOC and any satellite locations where operations are being conducted. It is important to maintain an open and steady line of communication between all these agencies in an effort to safely and efficiently coordinate a response to the incident. Regular information sharing is needed to ensure all data is up to date between each location and the correct and most recent information is being passed along to the public. Integrating a notification system into EOC management operations will go a long way to ensuring information remains current and everyone has access to the data they need to make educated and well-informed decisions.
Stage 3: Updating the Public
Once the initial emergency notification has been sent out and internal strategies have been laid out, it is important to re-establish communication with the public to update them on the current status of the situation. After the emergency has passed or has been resolved, further communications must be sent to the public to provide them with information on what is needed for recovery and available resources for both the short and long term.
As these communications are somewhat less urgent than the initial emergency alert, emergency managers can include more information and may choose to send the messages via channels that aren’t as immediate, such as emails or phone calls, as well as the other methods used prior. Again, the more channels being used to send these messages means the further the overall reach and receipt of the information will be.
Communicating with the public during an emergency is essential to reducing panic and confusion. Public frustration only serves to exacerbate the effects of the crisis, so if emergency managers have the capacity to lessen fears they should do what they can to promote calmness and safety. Providing information updates for the emergency whenever possible is one way managers in the EOC can help reduce potential chaos.
Also in this stage of emergency communications, emergency managers may choose to address the media through the help of a media spokesperson either from the EOC or on the ground who is aware of the latest details of the incident and who can speak to the response efforts and estimated restoration times.
In the second stage, during the internal strategy communications, a statement of facts and information may have been prepared that can be shared with members of the media to assist with increasing public knowledge and awareness, while also reducing the amount of misinformation being erroneously distributed. By instituting a select number of people who can speak to the media the number of mouths that must coordinate responses is limited, helping them stay on message and be a unified source of information.
Prioritization is essential
Whether it is at the onset of an emergency, during the incident, or after a resolution has been achieved, communication with all stakeholders and the public remains one of the most important steps of the incident operation plan. Without proper and efficient communication it would be near impossible to successfully manage a crisis situation as no one would be able to guarantee what data is accurate and there would be multiple different versions of events being disseminated.
Having a central command responsible for filtering and distributing information makes sure only the most up-to-date information reaches the public. Prioritizing these emergency communications is imperative to ensuring information is being distributed in a useful and appropriate way, and that the public and emergency officials always have access to all the information they need to assure the safety of themselves and others.