Communication Challenges During Wildfire Season

One of the biggest challenges a business faces during a wildfire is communication. Wildfires can grow from a small brush fire into an inferno that engulfs thousands of acres in only a matter of hours.

As a result, officials must be on their toes and have the right technology, processes, and training in place to ensure those in harm’s way are given the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones at a moment’s notice.

This year’s wildfire season has been particularly severe. Record-breaking wildfires in California and Colorado have resulted in over a million acres of damage already—and still have not been completely contained.

Though progress has been made recently in containing the fires, communication has been a struggle throughout. The LA Times reported the challenges that county officials in California faced when trying to send evacuation alerts.

Some messages were delivered to too many people, others to too few, and still others failed to send at all—due to difficulty using the county’s emergency communication system and coding errors.

California is not alone

Many governments and businesses alike are unprepared to effectively manage a wildfire situation. Much of the issue comes from the misconception that as long as first responders and business leaders can communicate with each other, the emergency response plan is sufficient.

In fact, it is equally critical for government agencies and businesses to communicate with the public, employees, and other affected groups.

Communication with these groups can be difficult. The pitfalls, however, are relatively consistent. Communication challenges during wildfire season typically fall into seven major categories:

Seven Communication Challenges Associated with Wildfire Response

1. Uncertainty About Message Receipt

With many emergency communication solutions, it’s difficult to know whether a message reached its intended audience. Oftentimes, a business utilizes one or two communication channels, such as phone and email, with no way to know if the intended recipient listened to or opened the alert.

Solution: Invest in a Multi-channel Communication System

Businesses need to leverage every communication system they can including phone, email, SMS text, push notifications, social media, and intranet sites. An integrated, multi-channel communication system gives businesses a quick way to reach all employees, no matter which device they’re using, and track the read rates of each message.

2. Inconsistent Messages

Without the use of pre-built templates or clear protocols, it’s easy for messages to miss their mark. One study by the University of Oregon found that emergency messages during a wildfire are often conflicting or confusing. They also found that the information was old or inaccurate. This is especially true if separate, uncoordinated agencies are sending messages.

Solution: Use Pre-built Templates and Audience Segmentation

An effective emergency communication system should offer templates that a user can prebuild for different situations, such as a wildfire. Administrators can take their time developing concise messaging in times of calm that they can instantly access and send in times of emergency. They can then segment messages according to the audience to reduce irrelevant information and ensure the right message is getting to the right people at the right time.

3. Challenge: Internal Priorities

Unfortunately, many businesses downplay the importance of communication during an emergency event. Even governments fail to properly prioritize communication in inter- and intra-agency situations and with the public.

Solution: Move Communication to Top of List

We cannot understate the value of communications during a wildfire. Executive buy-in will ensure communication is a priority in any emergency response plan. Companies should invest in a comprehensive emergency communication system that gives businesses the ability to protect employees and ensure business continuity.

4. Unclear Roles

When roles and responsibilities are unclear, effective communication is nearly impossible. Unclear roles and responsibilities were identified as one of the major problems with the Sonoma County wildfire response. Executives and administrators who aren’t properly trained can cause more harm than good. Employees are misinformed, or worse, never receive the information they need to protect themselves.

Solution: Designate and Communicate Roles

Every business should have roles and responsibilities clearly documented, communicated, and rehearsed. Outline who makes key decisions, who is responsible for communications, who will gather information from various sources, etc. As you develop your plan, you should assign a specific person to every task.

5. Lack of Training

As witnessed in the Sonoma County fires, all of the technology in the world won’t do much good if the people tasked to use it aren’t trained. Speed is paramount in an emergency. The longer it takes someone to figure out the communication system, the more lives are at risk.

Solution: Train Often and Well

Training should be at regular intervals with full role-playing involved. Businesses should expect every person with responsibility in the emergency plan to complete the training together in order to perfect coordinated efforts. Promote regular use of consistent communication on the system, establishing best practices along the way.

6. Lack of Documentation

An emergency can be chaotic. Properly documented instructions are key to adequate preparation and response. According to the independent Assessment Team that evaluated the Sonoma County response efforts, “Checklists or detailed procedures for deciding what warnings to issue, when, and in what form appeared to be almost entirely absent.” And available messaging templates did not include wildfires—leaving alert operators scrambling.

Solution: Document and Distribute

Develop integrated standards of practice, document every step of the emergency procedure, and then distribute the protocol to stakeholders and employees. Make the procedure easy to follow by using graphics such as a flow chart. An overall plan should accompany each role’s individual responsibilities.

7. Inadequate Technology

Some businesses lack appropriate emergency communication technology. Others use piecemeal email, phone, and internal communication systems. Still others have systems they don’t use properly. Conflicting and inconsistent use of technology causes confusion, drains resources, and wastes precious time.

Solution: Keep It Simple

Technology doesn’t have to be complex. Invest in a single, integrated emergency communication system that offers flexible, scalable functionality. Make sure the people who will be using the technology receive proper training. They should be completely comfortable with it so that in an emergency they can activate it without delay.

The Importance of Simplicity

Communication during wildfire season is high stakes.

In the California wildfires, officials admitted the “lack of communication is what prevented [residents] from knowing the fire was coming closer […] alerts were sent out, but not everyone […] received them.”

The KPMG assessment of the Fort McMurray wildfire found the same, saying there were “challenges due to a lack of consistent use of communication technology.”

The seven challenges above tell much of the story—but one message underlies them all. 

Simplicity alone can solve many of the challenges that businesses and state officials face in their communication. Complex, unintuitive systems require more training, result in more mistakes, and are less likely to be trusted in a critical situation.

AlertMedia sets itself apart by providing the simplest, most modern emergency communication solution on the market. We have helped thousands of customers communicate during wildfires and every other type of critical event—overcoming these communication challenges and keeping their people safe, informed, and connected.

Looking for help crafting communications for your business? We’ve created a set of templates that will help you craft messaging for all phases of a wildfire.