In the wake of recent high profile shootings, measures such as access control and video surveillance have become the order of the day in a bid to deter future attacks. But what about threats that can’t be prevented?
Between the sudden onset of an emergency and its aftermath lie the golden minutes.
You may have heard of the golden hour – that brief window of opportunity after a stroke that can make all the difference in how much permanent damage is done. Larger-scale emergencies work that way, too.
No matter what is done to protect against threats, eventually one will break through. A devastating storm will track your way, a water main will burst, dangerous gas will leak, or an unbalanced person will get in with a weapon.
When it happens, things at your site instantly get very complicated. The clock starts ticking away your chance to mitigate disruption and damage to your people, assets, customer relationships, reputation – and even your ability to recover.
Your People are the First Responders
You have a 13-minute warning, on average, if a tornado hits. Your first indication of a gas leak, hazmat spill or water main break is typically after it’s already happened. If violence strikes your site, the damage will likely be done by the time police arrive. If someone goes into cardiac arrest, there’s less than a 10-percent chance of survival if he/she has to wait for outside emergency medical response.
Coordination with local authorities is a vital piece of emergency planning – but the first responders are always your own people. In an emergency, they’re the ones you’ll depend on to quickly secure assets, safely power down equipment, help co-workers, move rapidly to designated evacuation or shelter spots, and perform countless other tasks under pressure.
If your site is large, you probably already have emergency plans, designated incident commanders, and possibly on-site security trained to deal with various crises. But most of your people are likely focused on their day-to-day jobs, and have at best only a vague idea of what they personally should do in the face of various emergency events.
When a sudden threat surfaces, the collective actions taken by every person at your site in those brief golden minutes afterward play the biggest part in determining how rosy or bleak the recovery will be.
Information is Your Force-Multiplier
There is only so much a relatively small number of on-site emergency personnel can do to rapidly orchestrate the behavior of masses of people in a crisis. If even a few people at your site do the wrong thing in an emergency, they won’t just endanger themselves. They’ll introduce complexity in a crisis that can cause a strained situation to cascade out of control.
It’s a common belief that people do the wrong thing in a crisis because they panic. On the contrary, studies show that people confronted with an emergency are likely to do what you need them to do, IF:
- They have specific information about what is going on.
- They know what actions you want them to take.
You have two opportunities to provide that information:
- Before an emergency event, using training and drills.
- Once an emergency strikes, using emergency communications methods and systems.
Training and drills are essential, of course. They not only help accustom everyone to what is expected of them, but they expose gaps in your emergency plans so you can correct them before an actual emergency hits.
But the most effective training and drills are also time-consuming and disruptive to your everyday operations. There will never be enough time to simulate and practice for every eventuality. Soldiers train constantly to mobilize and work as a team under fire in a wide variety of crises – but that level of training for your people would leave no time to fulfill the overall goals of your organization.
Training alone is not enough for a large organization. Effective emergency communications plans and tools are indispensable to your organization’s ability to withstand a crisis.
No Emergency Plan Survives Contact with the Emergency
Without clear, specific information, people commonly react in ways that can lead to devastating consequences:
- They ignore the situation.
- They look for more information.
- They move toward the crisis area to investigate.
- They do what others are doing, rather than what their training tells them to do.
- They do what’s familiar – for example, they use the main entrance during evacuation rather than the nearest exit, backing up traffic in hallways and stairwells and impeding your emergency teams.
When confronting a crisis, your incident commanders and designated emergency managers need to be able to instantly communicate clear, specific information to everyone at the site about what is happening, and what people need to do.
And your designated emergency personnel need the tools to deliver that information repeatedly, via multiple communications channels, to reinforce emergency directives and spur urgent action. Multiple, repeated alerts and directives help individuals correctly assess their risks and do the right thing in an emergency.
Finally, if the emergency has spun out of control, your incident commanders will need to quickly adapt to new circumstances, rapidly improvise new responses—and instantly communicate the new plans to everyone at your site.
Throwing the Emergency Preparedness Dice: Two Misconceptions
The amount of time and money large organizations are willing to invest in emergency preparedness in general, and emergency communications in particular, is subject to cost/benefit analysis, just like everything else.
The problem is, two common misconceptions can cause an organization’s leaders to significantly miscalculate where time and investment should be spent.
This article has touched on the first of these: the belief that an organization is prepared for emergencies if it coordinates with outside responders or designates on-site security and emergency managers. At any large site, on-premises emergency teams are vastly outnumbered by those who are not emergency professionals. Your incident commanders cannot effectively manage an emergency without the tools they need to direct the actions of everyone at your site in a crisis.
The second misconception is how much an emergency will cost. It’s important to calculate and insure against estimated facility damage, inventory destruction and liability claims related to likely emergencies. But some organizations underestimate a different set of emergency damages, and end up gambling with much higher stakes than they realize. Insurance largely won’t cover orders delayed, customers lost, enrollment and/or donation declines, and potentially shredded reputations. A rigorous focus on emergency preparedness is much more common among leaders who recognize the true cost of emergencies, and their potential to seriously disrupt an organization’s operations.
Six Ways Emergency Communications Have Evolved
Fast, effective communications are a cornerstone of any organization’s ability to minimize the damage when an emergency strikes. Here are six key ways emergency communications systems, tools, and approaches have advanced in recent years:
Emergency voice directives instead of only sirens – sirens alone can’t provide enough information about the emergency and the desired actions. Emergency leaders can now broadcast recorded voice instructions throughout a site in seconds, and set them to repeat automatically – reducing confusion, and moving people to safety faster.
Location targeting – some emergencies affect only one building or floor. In others, you may need to send different instructions to different locations – for example, telling everyone inside a building to shelter in place, and telling everyone else at your site to avoid the area. With modern communications systems, you can quickly target specific directives to individual locations.
Automation – emergency communications systems can now broadcast specific alerts and instructions throughout your site automatically, if sensors or data feeds report a dangerous situation.
Mobile operation –in the past, on-site incident responders often couldn’t broadcast instructions throughout a building or site unless they were at a central public address location. With modern communications tools, you can now activate your site’s communications systems and broadcast alerts from almost anywhere – off-site, or via mobile devices.
Integration of multiple communication channels –Advanced communications systems make it possible to instantly activate multiple, simultaneous communications channels throughout your site – triggering flashing lights and sirens, broadcasting voice instructions via your existing PA system, as well as through desktop IP phones, and pushing text instructions via computer “pop-up” alerts, digital signs, and email/text systems.
Power and communications redundancies –some emergencies will take down power, phone, and Internet. Advanced emergency systems are battery-backed-up and feature independent networks designed to work even if Internet and cell networks fail.
Joanne Pekich is Director of Marketing for emergency communications company Metis Secure. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org