Federal, state and local agencies spent months preparing for the 2019 Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, game planning for the multitude of incidents that could threaten the safety and security of fans attending the game, as well as individuals and businesses that congregated in areas around the stadium. Terrorist attacks, active shooters, severe weather (yes, relevant even for an indoor stadium) and power disruptions are just some of the threats agencies prepared for, not to mention scores of unforeseen scenarios that challenge even the most experienced emergency management teams.

A key component of Super Bowl planning took place months before the big game, when  Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) - in conjunction with FBI, TSA, Atlanta Police Department and other federal, state and local agencies - conducted a major emergency preparedness exercise at a MARTA station near the stadium. The exercise simulating a crisis scenario that could arise during the Super Bowl was replete with explosions, smoke and actors to create as realistic a setting as possible for first responders. 

Extensive planning and multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction exercises like these are par for the course when it comes to large-scale sporting events, summer concerts and political conventions. The risk, however, is that agencies view large-scale simulated exercises as part of the planning process, and thus fail to develop a plan for before and after these simulated events. This oversight can cause chaos, confusion and undermine the public safety benefits they are designed to provide when a real event occurs.

There are several best practices to follow for large-scale multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction exercises to ensure smooth operations and communications before and after an event takes place. Here are four to consider: 

Inform residents early and often of planned exercise

Think about the first time you walk through a haunted house attraction on Halloween – things are jumping out and your reactions are genuine. But if you go through a second time you know what to expect, and your reactions are not as spontaneous.

Apply this behavioral science to large-scale event exercises and it is easy to see the predicament agencies face. If you over-communicate to residents well in advance, they will likely tune out the exercise and emergency responders won’t really have a realistic gauge of the potential chaos that might ensue if the real thing happens. But the risks of not informing residents in advance are too great, and failure to do so could create a level of chaos that undercuts the value of the exercise itself. At the same time, if the public becomes unclear on what is a simulation and what is real, reactions become unpredictable and the emergency event harder to manage.

Translation: posting a handful of ads on the day of the event that an emergency exercise will be taking place is not enough. Agencies must start the communications process earlier, and be very clear on what residents should expect. Over the next 36 hours, you will see the bomb squad conducting simulated exercises at this location, and there will also be simulated explosions at this parking lot near the stadium. The timing of distributing this information is a balancing act, however; you want to notify the public these exercises are occurring, but want to avoid doing so in a way that would lead to hundreds of people showing up at the simulation locations to watch the exercise.

Finally, communication to the public should recognize that residents consume information across myriad channels, so messages need to go out across broadcast, print, online, social media and on the streets.

Message consistency is key

While having multiple avenues available for citizens to get information is the best way to ensure they are aware of the given situation, maintaining message consistency across the board can prove to be difficult – particularly when exercises federal, state and local agencies. Inconsistency breeds confusion and confusion breeds chaos. Citizens lose trust in the sources, which opens the door for misinformation to spread on social media and through other channels.

Agencies must invest time to provide agencies with a messaging playbook and seek to automate the messaging as much as possible to remove the potential for human error. Furthermore, agencies must anticipate that citizens seeing or hearing these exercises might turn to unexpected places for information. If a citizen calls 911, will operators know to assure the caller this is an exercise? If a business owner approaches a police officer in the street not directly involved in the exercise, will he or she be informed this is occurring? Exercise participants must consider all touch points in the planning process. 

Activate residents well before the big event

While there are multiple communication channels available to agencies planning a large event, the process becomes infinitely smoother when more residents and visitors opt-in to receiving notifications. Agencies can roll out a city-wide campaign to encourage citizens to download the relevant Emergency Mass Notification System (EMNS) app and enroll in opt-in text alerts. So if individuals text #AdeleSummerConcert to receive text alerts, concertgoers can be directly notified of relevant activities before, during and after the concert.            

Beyond opt-in text messages, mass notification systems should be a core component of the large-scale exercise. In fact, agencies could use a mass notification alert to trigger the exercise itself and set the entire event in motion. To ensure notification systems possess the scalability and functionality to handle simulated and real events, the system should be able to geo-target recipients and be equipped with the ability to send pre-built, pre-scheduled notifications for every scenario. Additionally, individuals who opt-in may only want to receive certain types of optional notifications. Using the right mass notification system and properly training authorized system users, mitigates risk and maximizes the benefits EMNS can deliver.

Be prepared for social media misinformation to spread fast

After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research to investigate the broad impacts of these disasters. As part of the research, NSF used a combination of social networking, content analysis and surveys to understand the role of social media in communicating during disaster preparedness and response. It found the general public is not very good at differentiating truth from rumor related to disasters. The public tends to spread rumors and is unlikely to correct false information, even after it has been debunked.

The risks of social media misinformation extend beyond natural disasters to large-scale events. For emergency response managers, the NSF research highlights the importance of responding to and verifying or debunking messages on social media. While resources are always limited in disaster response, NSF recommends focusing on quickly rectifying and clarifying information related to evacuation and safety can have a significant impact.

In the case of a “realistic” exercise, the social media misinformation may be well-meaning and concerned citizens unsure about what they are seeing and hearing, or it could be others looking to seed chaos and confusion. Agencies should be prepared for both the simulated exercise and the event itself with a plan to quickly get ahead of and combat misinformation.

Ultimately, the best way to ensure success when it comes to preparing for large-scale events is to look at it from every possible angle and to make sure every stakeholder has the appropriate and accurate information. Evaluating what citizens need to know, where they will go for information and how to minimize any confusion or rumors will ensure a smooth event experience.