Using Mass Communication Systems to Gain Control in the Chaos
Emergency Management Dec 09, 2016

Control in the Chaos

Recovery after a disaster isn’t easy or cheap but it can be eased when communications flow back and forth between business leaders, support staff, and employees.

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Why The Emergency Management Market Is Soaring

When we heard the report based on new market research that the incident and emergency management market is projected to reach $114 billion by 2021, we weren’t surprised. But what people may not realize is why the market is exploding. The report notes the growth is due to “changing climatic conditions, increasing government regulations and norms, extensive usage of social media to spread information, and increased threats of terrorist attacks.”

Pretty sobering. Every one of those key drivers is out of our immediate control. We don’t like to feel out of control. In fact, the feeling of being out of control is a leading cause of anxiety and depression. It can lead us to act irrationally or at the very least, make us irritable. The truth is, we feel safe when we are in control.

An interesting study found climate change ranks among the top 20 greatest fears of U.S. adults and nearly 40 percent of people have anxiety about terrorism. These are serious numbers. So what can a company do to alleviate some of these fears?

Mass Communication Systems

Remember, people are anxious when they feel out of control. One way companies can give people peace of mind is to have an emergency response plan that includes an effective mass communication system. When people feel like their company is watching out for them, will notify them of any impending danger, and will tell them what to do if the worst happens, they are more likely to relax a bit. It’s when they feel like it’s all on them—like it’s up to them to find the information, and to know what to do about it–that’s when panic can strike.

A mass notification system isn’t just one mode of communication. It is a system and that implies there are many parts that work together. In this case, it involves multi-channel communications. This includes phone, email, SMS text, push notifications, social media updates, intranet updates, and custom channels such as two-way radio and broadcasts. All of these can work together to ensure every employee gets the right message instantly and is kept updated throughout the ordeal. Using only one or even two modes of communication is sure to leave many quite literally, in the dark.

Most in-house or custom-built systems are not capable of sending messages out through all of these channels simultaneously or in real time. They also don’t always include two-way communication, something that has proven to be more successful than a one-way blast. People want to feel like they are in contact with someone who knows what to do in an emergency, not just receive information. Further, we live in a culture now that demands to be part of the conversation and solution. With social media and crowd-sourced sites like Yelp, we learned quickly that we have a voice and our voice matters.

Instead, organizations need to look towards purpose-built technology designed specifically for this multi-faceted communication. Solutions today are far greater than those even a decade ago. As we have become more mobile and the workforce has followed along, it is more likely we will be reached through texts and push notifications than by an email or phone.

Received vs. Heard

Modern technology makes it possible for admins to quickly send out alerts, notifications, and information and even measure the open rates to see which channels are most used. This can be highly beneficial when gauging where employees are most connected and how many were able to act upon the messages sent.

Notice I didn’t say “able to receive” the messages. Receiving the messages is one thing; reading them and acting on the information is another. We receive dozens, if not hundreds of emails every day that sit in our inboxes for days. I recently went through my inbox and found unread emails dating back to 2012. I received them, but I never opened them.

Will a mass communication system prevent a terrorist attack or a category 5 hurricane? Of course not, but being able to communicate during a hurricane or terrorist attack can help keep people safe and give them the critical information they need in real time so they can act. When we can act, we are back in control.

Impacts to Businesses

It’s not just employees who feel anxious about emergency events. Organizations fear them as well. Businesses can suffer from lost revenue, market share, and productivity, just to name a few.

While larger corporations likely have the resources to fall back on when one location suffers a loss, small businesses aren’t always as lucky. According to FEMA, roughly 40-60 percent of small businesses never reopen their doors following a disaster and only 20 percent were still operating after two years.

Recovery after a disaster isn’t easy or cheap but it can be eased when communications flow back and forth between business leaders, support staff, and employees. The first step in recovery is assessing the damage, both to people and to assets.

How do you verify your employees are safe and accounted for? It takes communication. How do you determine which locations were impacted and what the damage looks like? Communication. It will take teams of people to work together – to communicate – in order to assess the situation, begin to pick up the pieces, and get the doors open again as quickly as possible.

Planning always pays off. Besides including a modern communications plan as a key part of your emergency plan, you must practice. Most organizations understand the importance of practicing their evacuation plans annually (at least, we hope). We file outside into a designated safe zone and wait for the all-clear signal before returning to our offices. Management typically times how quickly people evacuated and if anyone was left in the building. That pretty much sums up the practice.

But what about practicing the communications? Do you really want to rely on a system that has never been tested company wide? We recommend using the mass communication system for other situations besides only emergencies. Sure, practice an emergency drill and use the communication system to notify employees during the drill, but use the system to announce company-wide messages. Not only do you get more out of your mass communication system, but administrators and employees get used to the system. When an emergency does come, no one will be fumbling around trying to figure out how to use the system or what to do when they get an alert. You can also ensure every employee received the message, similar to scanning the building to make sure every employee is out of the building.

Lessons from 9/11

Forbes wrote an article about how businesses best recover after a disaster and pointed to a situation with Morgan Stanley. It highlights the need for practice in every area of emergency response and recovery:

“In 1993, when terrorists first attacked the World Trade Center, Morgan Stanley wasn’t satisfied with the four hours that it took to evacuate its employees. The company developed a multi-faceted emergency plan and practiced the plan frequently. This ended up paying off when terrorists struck again on September 11, 2001. Immediately after the attacks, Morgan Stanley employees were ordered to evacuate the towers and did so in 45 minutes…[it] used effective communication strategies to provide timely information to management and employees, investors and clients, and regulators and the media. While 12 of its people did perish in the disaster, many more could have died had Morgan Stanley not had a solid disaster plan in place that it practiced frequently.”

We all hope and pray our places of work are never hit with a terroristic attack, much less two in less than 10 years. But history can teach us all a thing or two and in this case, a few things made all the difference.

  1. Never stop improving. Had Morgan Stanley simply practiced their drills and sent everyone back to their desks without questioning whether or not the evacuation could go faster, who knows how many more employees would have died on September 11th. Because they recognized there was room to improve and then developed a better evacuation plan, they saved lives. While their employees were no doubt panicked on September 11th, the fact that they were able to evacuate in only 45 minutes proves they knew what to do, even in the face of one of the most horrific events in our history.
  2. Practice makes perfect. There is no way Morgan Stanley could have predicted that an airplane with tanks full of gasoline would one day fly into their building. They could have never known the fuel would be so hot that it would melt the internal structure of the building so it would collapse.What we can learn here is that no emergency plan can predict everything. What it can do, however, is put strategies in place that can keep people as safe as possible in any situation and then practice them. Practice until every single employee from the bottom to the top is familiar and comfortable with the plan. While continual practice may get eyes rolling, it will also give people that sense of control they will need when an emergency happens.
  3. Invest in a solid mass communications system. The mass communications system industry is growing for a reason. People are getting smarter and understand what Morgan Stanley picked up on 15 years ago – communication matters in an emergency.

Effective communication strategies must include timely messages that get to their intended recipients when the unthinkable happens. Thankfully, most emergencies are much less critical than a terrorist attack. They include power outages, IT outages, and natural disasters that give us a little warning before striking. Yet in every situation, critical or not, organizations need emergency notification software in place that is easy to use, familiar to everyone, and can send messages across multiple channels at the same time.

Had the system Morgan Stanley used been complicated to operate, delayed the sending of the message, or failed to send the message to every employee, more people would have died. With the system in place, they were able to reduce the evacuation time from four hours to just 45 minutes – from a high rise building with no working elevators and thousands of panicked people cramming the stairwells.

This Forbes article implies that the communication system was used after 9/11 to continue communications with employees and key stakeholders. The point is, recovery and healing include communications. It doesn’t stop with the alerts and warnings. A system can be leveraged before a crisis (if there is any warning, such as a natural disaster), during the crisis, and after the crisis. It’s the lifeline your employees will depend on to feel like things are under control.

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