Guest Column | July 17, 2013

Emergency Communication Phases Reinforce Business Continuity Plan

By Hannah Snyder,  business continuity planner, xMatters

Technology advancements have given us the ability to communicate in real time. In fact, with all of the advancements, it has become more difficult to justify poor communication. Technology increases connectivity and productivity, and it can also save lives during an emergency. The ability to send emergency notifications over any device or platform enables targeted messages to successfully reach and warn large numbers of people about imminent or existing danger, potentially taming an incident or emergency from turning into a crisis or catastrophe. However, every situation is different, and unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all. In order to be able to respond effectively during an incident that requires emergency communication, analysis, planning, preparation, and practice are critical.

Mitigate

Noah didn’t build the ark when it was raining. The “pre-crisis phase” is the calm before the storm. This is the time to plan for whatever types of disruptions may impact your business: manmade, natural, technology, or facilities-related. Plan your emergency communication and business continuity notification messages and templates now, while the urgency and stress level is low. Make your notification lists at the same time. Who needs to be notified as a first responder? Who needs to be notified for building evacuation?  Which executives must be informed immediately? What about external parties? Customers? Suppliers? Regulators? During a crisis, when the pressure is intense, it is not the time to try to coherently author notification messages or try to remember who needs to be notified and in what capacity.  And remember, communication is a two-way street. When crafting templates and messages in preparation for incidents, be sure to anticipate the response components for those who will be receiving and responding to messages.

After considering the types of events you need to communicate, author templates for different conditions surrounding that event; is the office open for business? Will the office be open for business but with a delayed opening? Is the office closed? Frame out what would actually be said for each of these circumstances.  Save your templates with meaningful names so that it is easy to select the correct scenario — not just for you, but also for others who may use them.

Communication objectives during “business as usual” (BAU) target training and awareness campaigns. These campaigns inform employees and the response community. The communicator must be prepared by facilitating the following:

  • Increase self-efficacy by suggesting actions that reduce the likelihood of harm.
  • Provide warning messages regarding imminent threat.
  • Collaborate by developing alliances with agencies, organizations, and groups.
  • Develop consensus recommendations by experts and first responders.
  • Create messages and test them for use in later stages.
  • Build and test communication systems.

Prepare

In addition to critical communications, the “pre-crisis phase” is the best time to solidify planning and preparation efforts. During this phase the following needs should be addressed:

  • Predict and address the types of disasters most likely to impact your organization.
  • Anticipate and develop likely preliminary answers to audience questions.
  • Draft initial message templates; specific details can be filled in later.
  • Identify spokespersons, resources, and resource mechanisms well ahead of time.
  • Exercise following the response plan, using the messages you have already created, followed by refining the plan and messages as needed.
  • Foster alliances and partnerships to ensure one voice; speaking in a coordinated manner
  • Develop and test communication systems and networks that will relay notifications.

Before danger is in the air or it starts to rain cats and dogs or a water main break floods your building, test your templates and composing messages using your incident notification procedures. Sometimes called crisis communication plans, these plans detail the company’s procedures, processes and protocols for communicating during an unplanned business disruption that impacts employee safety or company property. If you don’t have published notification procedures, write them now.

During incidents, two-way communications can be critical. It facilitates information transfer between emergency communications staff, affected people and first responders. It validates that your employees are out of harm’s way. When testing communications capabilities, be sure to make sure that communications can be sent out but also can be received. If your company uses a mass notification system, make sure employees put the phone number into their caller ID so that it is easily recognizable when activated and not mistaken or a wrong number or a sales call.

Testing can be planned or unplanned (surprise). It could be as simple as asking the message receivers to respond to the message and join a conference bridge. Select an appropriate response time, or a response time objective. Track the responses. Capture the metrics. Record the span in response time. How many people responded in less than 2 minutes? In less than 5 minutes? How many people responded in more than 15 minutes? Is that too late? Practice so that your teams can meet the response time objective.

Understanding the pattern of a crisis can help communicators anticipate problems and appropriately respond. For communicators, it’s vital to know that every emergency, disaster, or crisis evolves in phases. The communication, too, must evolve through these changes. By dividing the crisis into phases; respond, resolve, recovery, resume; the communicator can anticipate the information needs of the affected company, media, agencies, organizations, and the general public. For each phase, specific types of information need to be created and delivered to your audience.

Respond

The initial phase of a crisis is characterized by confusion and intense media interest. Information is usually incomplete, and facts are sparse.  Communication channels are often disrupted. It’s important to recognize that information from the media, other organizations, and even within your own response organization may not be completely accurate. It is important to learn the details about what happened, to determine the organization’s or agency’s communication responses, and to confirm the magnitude of the event as quickly as possible.  Accuracy in what is released and the speed in which response officials acknowledge the event are critical at this stage.

During the initial phase of an event, response organizations and spokespersons should take steps to establish their credibility. Even when there is little information to offer, it is still possible to communicate how the organization is handling the event and when more information will be available. Commit to the audience that you will continue to provide new information as it becomes available.  At the very least, messages should demonstrate that organizations are engaged and addressing the issues directly. In most cases, all information must be cleared by the appropriate leaders or designated clearance personnel before it’s communicated internally and externally.  If clearance procedures are too slow or cumbersome, they should be challenged during exercises and in planning.

During incident response, stabilization of the incident is the primary goal and effective emergency communication is vital. During an incident response an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) should be opened. This is a central command and control location responsible for carrying out emergency management functions at a strategic level in an emergency situation, and ensuring the business continuity of a company or other organization. Common functions of all EOC's include: collecting, gathering and analyzing data; making decisions that protect life and property, maintaining continuity of the organization, within the scope of applicable laws; and communicating those decisions to all concerned agencies and individuals.

The most critical component of an EOC is the individuals who staff it. They must be trained, and have proper authority to carry out actions necessary to respond to the disaster. They also must be capable of thinking outside the box, and creating a lot of "what if" scenarios.

The second most critical component of an EOC is its communications system. This can be from simple word of mouth, to sophisticated encrypted communications networks, but it must provide for a redundant path to ensure that both situational awareness information and strategic orders can pass into and out of the facility without interruption. For business continuity considerations, backbone components of the communications system are not located in the EOC.  EOC facilities generally incorporate radio over IP technology to provide a coherent assembly of various radios, interoperability with various radio technologies, and integration with telephone systems.

During this phase, the following communication needs will arise:

  • Communicators must send out incident notifications.
  • Employee wellness checks must be performed.         
  • Employees must be able to report that they are in trouble.
  • Employees must be able to report an incident.
  • Employees must be able to record the incident (initial report) and communicate it out.
  • Incident Management Teams must be able to be activated.
  • First responder mobilization should be based on their geo location and skill.
  • First Responders should be notified that the EOC is opened.
  • Assessment report updates should be sent to those that need to know.
  • Situation Reports should be created and communicated.
  • First Responders Teams should be notified to respond and assist.
    • Internal Teams like security, facilities, incident management (CMT), HR, Ops Media Legal executives
    • External might be DR facilities, police, fire, citizen near the site
  • First Responders should be able to communicate that the incident is stabilized.
  • Alternate back up teams should be able to be notified if the primary team is interrupted.

Resolve

If the incident response is stabilization of the situation, incident resolution is the act of implementing the decided course of action to bring the incident itself to closure and move into the recovery phase of the incident.

As the incident evolves, there will be an influx of media interest and scrutiny. Unexpected developments, rumors, or misinformation may place further demands on organization communicators. Other experts, professionals, and those not associated with the response may comment publicly on the issues. Sometimes they will contradict or misinterpret your messages. Criticism about the response is inevitable and to be expected. Processes for tracking communication activities and audiences are keys to success as the workload increases.

During the resolution phase, communications concerning the following should be prepared and ready for distribution:

  • Damage Assessment Information should be compiled.
  • Incident and background information should be provided to those who need it.
  • Information updates including ongoing risks and how to mitigate them.
  • Affected personnel should receive frequent information updates and notifications.
  • Incident action plan should be sent to smart phones for their section.
  • Misunderstandings, rumors, or unclear facts must be corrected.
  • Task lists should be distributed to mobile personnel on smart phones.
  • Work Task lists and progress updates should be communicated.
  • Communications regarding reallocation of personnel should be sent as needed using mobile task lists and personnel response.
  • External parties including partners, customers and the public sector should be notified.
  • Notifications for the initiation of back up/ alternate facility availability should be made.
  • Third-party communications should include clients, suppliers, regulators and public sector
  • Executive Communications should be prepared.

Recover

During recovery, depending on the type of business disruption, many steps must be taken and many different types of skills and teams are necessary to bring the business back to “business as usual” (BAU). In addition to internal needs; ensuring employees are well (physically and psychologically) and ready to return to work, and business processes can be resumed, there may be external requirements; building repairs, water, electricity, even road and grounds repair, certifications and inspections. It is important to recognize that when significant business disruptions occur, they impact entire regions. This means that other businesses in both the public sector and private sector will be competing for recovery resources. While the business may be recovered and ready to resume, the dependency on external resources and the demands that other businesses are placing on them may delay the return to business as usual.

Communication objectives for the recovery phase include continued communication to the general audience and affected groups. During the recovery phase the following types of communications should be anticipated:

  • New evacuations and/or personnel and process relocation as required
  • Situation Status Updates
    • Supervisors and stakeholders
    • Notify executives and effected parties that incident is managed
    • Notify employees
    • Notify third party vendors, suppliers, regulators
  • Mobile task lists instruct responders how to recover processes, machinery, assets, systems, etc.
  • Ongoing cleanup, remediation, recovery, and rebuilding efforts status
  • Risk avoidance recommendations

As the incident resolves and the business recovers, to business as usual (BAU), there may be a return to the status quo, with a better understanding about what took place. Once the incident is resolved, there may be media scrutiny of how the response was handled.  An opportunity may exist to reinforce personal preparedness messages while the issue is still current.

Resume BAU

To resume business as usual (BAU), all core processes will move back from the alternate work location. The alternate work site will be decommissioned, and technologies and primary building infrastructure will be recovered and tested and restored. Hazardous waste will be removed, building inspections will be completed and certifications received, and communications will be sent out to employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers and regulators and others that need to know the company is resuming BAU. There are still some activities left that need to be completed before the incident has been closed and first responders “stand down” and have been demobilized.

During the return to BAU, the following notifications should be anticipated;

  • Notification of BAU to all impacted.
  • Review communication report cards, what worked, what didn’t (from our reports).
  • Review communication plans.
  • Improve contact data.
  • Evaluate task performance speed and accuracy (from our reports).
  • Update task lists and BCPs in xM and Bamboo.

Once the business has returned to BAU, incident responders will evaluate and assess the effectiveness of the response including specific actions to improve crisis communication and crisis response capability, and performance of the communication plan. An after-action report, sometimes called a “hot wash” or “lessons learned,” is generated through a process of reviewing records and consulting the key people involved. No response is ever perfect, and there is always something to learn.

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