Best Practices in Emergency Alerting
A situation on campus can involve a broad spectrum of people. A best practice is to form an extensive working group that is involved in the planning process, appoint an emergency response manager, and then identify clear owners given the different types of situations. During the chaos of an emergency event, communication processes that were once thought to be easy can become confusing and difficult. Even the use of an emergency notification tool that seemed so simple during training several months ago can become daunting and fraught with the risk of miss-communicating simple information, thus compounding the emergency situation.
A few simple best practices can make a significant difference.
Define acceptable terms for emergency mass communications — What are the right terms for you to use that will be unambiguous and not cause confusion? Is there more than one assembly point? Is the word “gunman” appropriate for a female assailant? How will people respond to a directive to “stay in your office?” Do you expect them to return there if they are currently in a different building? Are there abbreviations for text messages that might be particularly clear or unclear? Many institutions have established lexicons for emergency situations; leverage what others have created and modify them for your own use. Make sure you test any terms that are unique to your campus with some actual potential recipients of the message. Things that seem clear to a group of administrators might be interpreted completely differently by a group of younger individuals. Many institutions will choose to review emergency messaging language with appropriate legal and security staff as well.
Determine target audience(s) specifics — Each audience will have different appropriate priorities and content. Different communication content and modes are relevant to different audiences. The first job of the crisis communications team is to contact the list of need-to-knows — security, key administrators, and first responders. The individuals on this list may vary depending on the specific situation. When will these key individuals be contacted and what will they be told?
Let’s look at the simple example of a chemical spill on campus. First responders would be notified first and told all appropriate details, including the expected material, resources in route, which roads are to be closed, what to communicate to civilians, and where to report. Individuals would be told to avoid the area in question, and to look to the Web site for more information. Media might be notified that there are no injuries and no immediate danger to any personnel and that more updates will follow.
Identify the appropriate mode of communication for each audience — Different modes of alerting may be better suited to specific audiences. For a mass audience where the highest performance and throughput is required, SMS alerts are an ideal solution. On the other hand, delivery notification to first responders may require a more interactive alert media that has better capability to convey a richer level of content and interactivity through a conference call. The number of first responders, and the corresponding network capacity used in communicating with them, is also a much smaller number than an entire population. In this case, a voice alert may be ideal. Interested parties who are not directly part of the community (e.g. family members) may be effectively supported with a higher latency, lower touch alert such as email. Institutions should consider their different potential audiences when developing their mass notification procedures and determine appropriate media accordingly.
Consider implementation of an inbound notification infrastructure — An effective mass notification system should enable inbound responses and provide a simple mechanism for reporting on and responding to those messages. Additionally, institutions should plan for a large number of inbound information requests. Often, on-site telephony systems can be saturated with inquiries from press and family. Coupled with just a small percentage of individuals calling in response to a notification they received, the call capacity of even the most robust telecomm infrastructure can be brought to its knees. In addition to a well-maintained informational Web site, many institutions utilize off-campus toll-free information lines to steer call volume off-site and effectively answer most of the typical questions.
Create message templates — Most institutions report that upwards of 75-80 percent of situations they encountered were ones they foresaw as possible threats. Pre-created messaging templates can take much of the “fog of war” out of an incident. By creating and using simple templates with fill-in-the-blank dates, locations and key details, institutions can quickly edit and send out emergency messages. It is important that the content created be appropriate for each mode of communication.
Identify alternates and back up plans — The only thing that can be completely counted on in any plan is that things will not go as you expected. That is not to say a plan isn’t invaluable, but you must be prepared to handle the unanticipated. If your internet service is unexpectedly out, can you still send an emergency notification? Where do you direct people for more information if your Web site is down? If your landlines and cellular communications are spotty, are there established face-to- face coordination procedures? The most important step in preparing for the unexpected is ensuring lines of authority and communication are clear. When chaos strikes, poorly trained teams often resemble a group of inexperienced soccer players, with every player running to the ball while leaving the goal unattended. Ensure that your team understands when they need to chase the ball and when they need to mind the goal.
Document and make plans easily accessible — Make sure emergency planning binders include instruction materials, necessary passwords/login information, contact information and are distributed to and accessible by those responsible for implementing emergency plans. Hard copy availability is important in case internet access is unavailable. We also recommend that this binder contain a short, one-page school specific “cheat sheet” that describes the tactical process for sending an alert.
Communicate the plan to the campus and local community — From ensuring individuals know to give their contact information, to ensuring the patrol officer on duty knows to unlock the motor pool gate, communicating the emergency plan is critical to its success. While there are normally effective and well established procedures for communicating with first responders and administrators, getting the word to individuals generally requires a more comprehensive marketing effort.
A plan is only as good as its execution. Ultimately the success or failure of any emergency response plan is based on how well the different constituents execute on their responsibilities. Periodically test systems, processes and people.
Communicate truthfully and promptly, and communicate succinctly — The communication goal is to be transparent without causing panic and chaos in the community. This means getting the word out quickly, communicating effectively without undue complexity, and monitoring both the situation itself as well as the coordinated strategies and tactical execution of your safety plans and protocols. Be comfortable not over communicating — Too much information can confuse things during a crisis, and when the community requires clear messages that demonstrate leadership and promote safety, be succinct.
Expect to be forced to make decisions based on incomplete information — As with all other aspects of your emergency preparedness, plan out your chain of command and your tactical response. What are the decision-making processes involved in your tactical response? Do constituents across all functional areas understand the bounds of their authority and is there a clear chain of decision making — within your safety responder community, the administration, security and police, and the campus at large?
Organize your first responders — Some emergencies have a clear tactical protocol, others may be more ad hoc. Build appropriate networks of first responders and have lists that can reach these teams prebuilt and ready to access in an emergency deployment.
Plan to utilize response features in your alert solution — Be sure that the administrators of your alert solution are fully trained to manage responses from individuals during the alerting process. This includes checking responses, validating delivery of emergency messages in a timely fashion, dispatching help to individuals in crisis who request assistance, and communicating with strategic players in your emergency management team.
Recovery should not be overlooked as part of the emergency alerting communication plan — This is the final phase of emergency management — returning the campus to its normal state.
Determine the decision makers — Who on the team has the authority to recall a lockdown? Who determines if the crisis is complete? Again, this takes some planning according to your risk predictions. As you know, in some events, staff on the ground may lack complete visibility of a threat. Most schools recognize that distressed communication of a still-active threat is a high risk issue. Your emergency preparedness scenarios must include a process to declare a threat fully mitigated, and assign responsibility to those who make that final determination.
Provide a smooth transition from “Crisis” to “Normal” mode — Many customers structure an “allclear” message that communicates the end of an event. Once your decision-makers have called a situation clear, send a concise alert to the community announcing this fact and referencing any available information resources that are available to further explain the situation. While it’s obviously impossible to predict all events that might occur in our midst, it is entirely possible to build a practice that protects and prepares us for many of the trials that await us.
After many years of providing emergency alerting solutions to institutions, we have found that SMS messaging is a critical component to a robust emergency management plan — We live in a highly mobile world, where employees, students and individuals can effectively work from anywhere, and the mobile phone has become the crux of their communication. No other messaging solution is able to target individuals as rapidly and as ubiquitously, given the penetration and availability of these mobile devices.
At Rave Mobile Safety, we’ve developed an extremely rapid and reliable emergency notification solution for higher education, government and enterprise organizations. Through a deep technology partnership with Mobile Messenger, a leading mobile solutions provider, our platform is able to rapidly transmit SMS messages to tens of thousands of individuals and collect responses, all in a matter of minutes. The solution works across all U.S. cell phone networks and any text-messaging capable handset.
Just as text messaging has had widespread adoption across the U.S. population, we believe MMS (picture and video messaging) will also become ubiquitous on mobile devices over time. This medium can provide even richer information during emergency situations, including photos of assailants, maps of “safe zones”, and detailed emergency evacuation procedures. As such, we will continue to grow our partnership with Mobile Messenger to provide MMS messages for emergency messaging.
While the heightened security risks facing today’s institutions are likely here to stay, we can ensure that these organizations communicate risks to emergency responders, administrators and individuals alike by harnessing the power of the mobile channel.