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.
Some of the most memorable wildfires in the U.S. were the horrific California wildfires of 2017.
Wildfires hit Sonoma County especially hard. Even though officials evacuated 100,000 people, 24 still died.
The Sonoma Assessment Team evaluated the emergency notification process and responded to these fires and found there was an established public alert and warning system to alert residents and visitors to the county.
In fact, alerts began the night the fire broke out.
Unfortunately, the team also discovered the warning efforts were “uncoordinated and included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies with regard to capabilities in various County departments.”
Additionally, responders overlooked many available tools, such as the federal Wireless Emergency Alert System.
Sonoma County 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 amongst 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.
In addition to the report conducted by Sonoma County, many media outlets and academic researchers have studied government and business responses to some of the country’s worst wildfires. They all indicated that communication can be greatly improved.
Here is a summary of their findings, as well as recommendations for overcoming the most common mistakes.
7 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.
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 prebuilt 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.
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.
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, they never receive the information they need to protect themselves.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 comfortable enough with it so that in an emergency they can activate it without delay.
Keys to a Good Communication Plan
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.”
Clearly, governments and businesses can do better when it comes to communication during a wildfire.
By defining clear roles, setting protocols, and implementing proper training on how to use a modern emergency communication system, companies and governments can improve their wildfire communication with a rapid, coordinated response.
Looking for help on crafting communications for your business? We’ve created a set of templates that will help you craft messaging for all phases of a wildfire.