|by Ed Wolff, MS, CEM, MEP|

A quick review of after-action reports for almost any major disaster event will typically reveal communications as the area where improvement is needed the most. Communications is the backbone for any incident or event where an Incident Commander, Emergency Manager, Police Chief, or Fire Chief needs to manage assets in the field.

How can emergency management interactions be improved to enhance a culture of preparedness? Consider the following best practices to bolster your agency’s communications capabilities:

Make it scalable.

As disasters expand in scope and severity, the need for effective coordination and communications grows. Create comprehensive, but flexible communications plans and acquire sufficient equipment to allow for evolving situations.

Make it multimodal.

During a disaster event, common channels for communication may be sporadically or completely unavailable. To deal with this problem, emergency communications should be “multimodal,” which simply means utilizing more than one method or channel to communicate. Key options for departmental multimodal communications include SMS/text messaging, voice, email, video teleconferencing, secure chat applications and radio communications.

In an emergency management environment, these various communication modes are often managed through an emergency/mass notification system. This type of system centralizes all contacts and messaging channels to ensure everyone gets the right message at the right time.

Whatever the tool or process, mitigate the risk of losing communications by establishing multiple, diverse channels.   

Make it track and confirm.

It’s frustrating for a manager to hear “I didn’t get the message” from a key recipient. It’s also maddening to try and confirm recipients’ understanding of a situation from a message sent through a “mass” channel such as SMS or email.

To address this, deploy validating technologies, like those found in a planning or emergency notification system. These functions capture data on notifications (time/date stamp, number called, live answer vs. voicemail, etc.). These systems also may contain the ability to ask as question such as “Are you available for duty?” with the recipient indicating their status via their reply.

Use it as a part of your daily operation.

Some organizations only utilize their multimodal communications systems in an actual disaster event. This is a mistake. Using the communication system as a part of daily operations ensures familiarity and comfort with the various available communication tools before a crisis hits.

Test it to break it.

Testing your communication system is critical to success. However, don’t just test to “check a box” and move on. Test the system to break it, then make it better.

Take it to the next level.

Don’t be satisfied with the basics. There are a variety of more advanced strategies and initiatives that can elevate your communications.

  • Get a GETS (and a WPS). Do you and your staff have a Government Emergency Telecommunications System (GETS) card? How about a Wireless Priority Service (WPS) on your cellular phones? These technologies give emergency managers priority bandwidth in a crisis.
  • Contract with Multiple Mobile Carriers. Have you contracted with more than one mobile carrier? Having multiple carriers allow you to continue communicating if a single carrier has a network outage. Broaden your mobile capabilities to ensure you have a backup.
  • Deploy satellite phones. If terrestrial networks are down, satellite phones may be the only options for communicating. Consider acquiring these devices and keeping them charged and ready for use.
  • Remember the radio. Do you have a Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan (TIC-P)? If you are on a trunking radio system, do you have a plan that you’ve fully tested for site failure? Additionally, do you utilize amateur radio operators as a means of emergency communications? In addition to public notification, broadcast partners can be part of your agency alerting for the quick  recall of personnel.

Timely and effective response doesn’t just happen. Make sure you’re dedicating sufficient time, money and personnel resources to develop your operation’s communications capabilities to the fullest extent. These actions will go a long way toward creating a better, stronger culture of preparedness.