Editor's Note: Edward Miller is president of Administrative Platforms for Blackboard Inc.
Last month, the Northeast blizzard Nemo dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in some areas and knocked out power to 659,000 people across nine states. Overall, more than 40 million people were affected.
In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, he cautioned, “Heat waves, droughts, wildfires and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late.”
Sandy, Irene – and now Nemo – are the new normal.
Communicating with your constituents in times of crisis can be challenging. Now that we have the capability to send alerts quickly and easily – and reach anyone, anytime – community expectations for constant communication are high. And they should be.
So how can you be more effective in delivering your emergency notifications?
Our organization works closely with thousands of institutions to ensure that they can communicate with their constituencies during winter weather and other safety and security scenarios. Here are seven best practices I picked up from the administrators and other leaders I work with every day.
1. Preconfigure emergency messages using templates and scripts that you can then customize as needed for each incident; this enables you to get notifications out more urgently.
2. Create a message that can be digested in 30-45 seconds. Write the message at no higher than a sixth-grade reading level to accommodate a diverse and possibly alarmed population. Common applications including Microsoft Word have tools to determine the reading level of a message.
3. When possible, use the same person to record each message related to an event. Continuity breeds assurance in your community.
4. Craft direct and detailed messages:
- Include who the message is from, what the emergency is, when and where it took/will take place, the recommended course of action, and where to go for more information.
- Remind recipients to seek out basic information elsewhere rather than tie up emergency lines.
- Look for ways to reassure; for example, if applicable, state that first responders are already on the scene.
5. Add automated National Weather Service alerts to your mass notification service.
6. Make sure you have the ability to manage the emergency using mobile technology in case you have to cope with a crisis from an off-site location.
7. Send alerts with zero retries. The time lapse between second and third attempts can result in warnings being delivered after weather conditions have changed.
Mass communication tools are continuously evolving to meet the expanding challenges and expectations of emergency managers. Alert messages are more often going out via multiple methods (text, email, voice, social media) and visible in more places. Mobile technologies and enhancements like push notifications will help ensure that people will see urgent messages. Innovative capabilities such as IP modalities that send notifications to hardware and advanced geo-mapping will also reduce the likelihood that people miss a critical message. And we can continue to expect more from emergency management systems.
But implementing an emergency notification solution that is fast, reliable, and far-reaching is not enough. To maximize the protection you can provide your community, it is also imperative to test and train staff on your notification system before the next severe weather event happens.