Looking back at Sandy: A Quick First Take on Lessons Learned

October 30, 2012

Todd Piett

While Sandy is still fresh in our collective conscience (even more so for those still without power), I figured it was worth documenting a few lessons learned from my vantage point just outside the eye of the storm, where we’ve supported our customers in the Northeast messaging over 1 million higher education students in past couple days. Some are lessons we’ve heard before but maybe haven’t really learned, and some may be new…

Multi-modal communication is key.  As Sandy moved across the Northeast, the wireless carriers experienced numerous  issues (read more about the carriers issues here).  From an emergency communications / mass notification perspective, this emphasizes the importance of a multi-modal communication strategy.  While mobile phones and SMS messaging has traditionally been one of the most reliable methods of communication during a disaster, ultimately messages only get through if the network is available.  Your emergency notification strategy should encompass all different modes, from email, voice, and text messaging to social media, on-campus signage, sirens and cable TV.  It is also important to think about the best uses for each mode of communication.  Facebook, Twitter and your web site are great “mass media” vehicles for getting a common message out to everyone.  Think of these for the initial messages warning your constituents of the impending risks and reminding them about the proper procedures, where to go for updates, etc.  As the situation evolves, look at sending very targeted messages to specific groups with actionable instructions (e.g. “Power is out in Smith Hall, please do not return to your room until further notice.”). Next, continue to monitor and engage on social media.  Remember its not just a one way messaging vehicle.

Have back up plans (and back ups to back ups).  Many customers experienced local network and power outages.  While many emergency plans called for driving students, faculty and staff to the university’s web site for updates, this quickly became untenable.  Some pointed their constituents to Facebook for updates.  It is important to look at off-site redundant web apps that can be used to disseminate information.  Facebook is an option as is having a low cost hosted back up web site that is hosted in a different geographical area.  Many Rave clients utilize the ability to customize the Rave Alert home page to serve as a back up source of information under an emergency.

Aim twice and pull the trigger once.  Training is key.  Make sure you have regular interactions with every emergency system you plan to utilize and be ever vigilant that the data in your systems (especially emergency notification systems) is current.  Have a comprehensive list of those that are trained easily accessible.  Make sure everyone knows who to call if support is necessary. Even with lots of pre-planning, in the heat of battle we can sometimes mis-type content or write ambiguous messages, causing more confusion.  Though we often plan ahead with templates and thorough processes for reviewing content, a best practice is to send yourself the message first and ensure that it reads the way you’d like.  The 30 seconds pause to reconsider the message can save a lot of confusion (and embarrassment). If you do make an error, get an update out quickly. Rumors spread quickly in today’s hyper-connected world.

Reassess and begin preparing again.  No time to take breather with winter just around the corner (and who knows what other types of events with which we might get hit).  We were actually lucky to have the level of advance notice we did on Hurricane Sandy.  While we didn’t know the exact details, the fact that the NorthEast was going to get hit shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.  Emergency management did a great job evaluating at risk areas, evacuating, managing transportation closings to minimize damage, etc.  If anything, “cyber” emergency management and communications may have been the most unorganized, with some areas seeing disjointed messaging between traditional and social channels of communication.  Many are still working through the kinks in their integrated communication strategies and utilization (or at least shepherding) of some of the newer communication forms.  Let’s all take an honest assessment of how we did and get ready for the next event.

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