Three Groups to Consider in Emergency Communication Plans

Knowing the types of emergencies to expect and what response is expected from each person makes it easier for employees to follow the instructions given by either on-site or external responders.

Advances in technology have brought about many forms of communication that previous generations never even dreamed could be possible. Yet, even with all of these new ways to stay connected, communication continues to be a weak point in many emergency response efforts. In fact, some forms of communication can even cause more harm than good.

First responders, whose job it is to be prepared for any emergency, commonly point to communication as an area for improvement. Facilities typically never see the volume of incidents that professional first responders do; but they can learn from their experiences.

Emergencies in facilities can range from one person being injured to a major disaster that affects multiple counties. No matter what the nature of the emergency, being able to clearly and accurately communicate everything from the need for first aid to working with county officials to make an official evacuation declaration becomes essential.

Emergency response training and drills often focus on learning and practicing tactical and operational procedures, such as evacuations or cleaning up spills. Recognizing the different audiences who will want and need information during an emergency and practicing how to communicate with each of those audiences is just as important because their needs are also immediate.

Communication with Employees
Employees need to know what actions they will be expected to take in the event of an emergency. Outlining these actions in written plans is not enough. Training helps employees to understand what types of incidents could occur, as well as the procedures that they should follow when something out of the ordinary happens.

After everyone understands their role—which may be as simple as evacuating the building, reporting to an evacuation coordinator, and not speaking to the media—facilities need to take the time to have drills. These drills allow everyone to practice their specific responsibilities so that when an incident does happen, they are more likely to recall exactly what needs to be done.

Knowing not only the types of emergencies to expect, but also what response is expected from each person, helps to calm fears and better manage an incident. It will also make it easier for employees to follow the instructions given by either on-site or external responders.

Employee communications can take many forms. Alarms may be used as an initial signaling device. Public address systems can be utilized for more detailed information. Some facilities are even using text messages and social media channels to communicate with employees.

Communication Among Responders
Responding to emergencies is stressful, even for professional responders. One constant that they call all rely on, however, is that when they enter a dangerous situation, they are not alone. Utilizing the buddy system during response efforts helps to ensure that anyone in harm’s way has a means of communicating, whether it is just verbally to their buddy or by an electronic medium such as a headset or walkie-talkie that allows them to talk to a section chief or anyone else whose help they may need.

Facilities may not have situations that require their internal responders to wear Level A suits or self-contained breathing apparatus, but they still need to have reliable means of communication. In some cases, having multiple or redundant forms of communication is also desirable.

Internal responders may also need to be able to communicate with external first responders. Hosting drills with local firefighters, hazmat teams, police, and emergency medical responders will help everyone become more comfortable with one another's capabilities. It also can give everyone involved a chance to practice both unified command and communication skills. Involving external responders benefits both the facility and local response agencies and can help identify gaps that may need to be filled before an emergency occurs.

Facilities also should have a means to communicate with health care professionals who may be called upon to treat employees or members of the community who become ill or injured as a result of something that happened at the facility. Government agencies such as OSHA or the EPA also may need to be notified in some instances.

Maintaining accurate contact information for outside response agencies can seem like a never-ending task, but an emergency situation is no time to start looking for a phone book. Being able to communicate quickly and reliably helps those external resources en route fast.

Communicating with the Public
In the absence of official information, rumors and false accounts of an incident can quickly overwhelm a situation and make it even worse. A common mistake that facilities make is failing to provide the media, customers, families, and other stakeholders with timely information following an incident.

Appointing and training a Public Information Officer (PIO) can help ensure that there is a dedicated person who has already been vetted by the facility and has the capabilities of presenting official messages on its behalf. In some cases, messages can be planned in advance. An advantage to pre-planning certain messages is that it allows for immediacy and, because the message was prepared in a non-stressful situation, it is more likely to be clear, concise, and reassuring that the situation is actively being handled in an appropriate manner.

The ability to quickly communicate directions and educate the public will help alleviate fears. It also can help to minimize chaos and prevent false rumors from spreading. Having a trained PIO also helps to channel media inquiries and can help prevent extraneous information from being aired. When employees are taught to defer to the PIO for statements and media sources are told when and where the PIO will address the media, timely and consistent messages can be presented to keep the public and stakeholders informed. The PIO also can work with each media resource to ensure they have the information that they need to meet their deadlines.

If the incident involves an interruption of goods or services, a PIO can also work with the company's public relations, customer service, sales, accounting, and other personnel to create consistent messages regarding delays in shipments or other service issues.

Plans also need to include ways to communicate with family members of employees. Sometimes these services are coordinated by the human resources department, but they may need training on handling non-routine assignments such as determining when and where to establish a meeting place for families to congregate or arranging for counselors, clergy, or therapists.

In the first moments after a disaster, trained personnel can sometimes go immediately into response mode to perform operational functions that they know need to be done. This is one reason why communication often can be overlooked in those initial, critical moments of an emergency or disaster. Establishing communication plans and drilling them just as regularly as operational and other response plans will help them become a more natural part of everyone's response.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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