6 Tactics Presented by Industry Experts and Leaders
Today’s hazards aren’t just limited to the typical fire or flood brought on by climate change or severe weather. We should consider and prepare for increasingly complex threats from global disease outbreaks and chemical spills to cyberattacks, civil disorder, and terrorism.
Because the reality is the risks are higher now than ever.
As our world becomes more intricately connected, technologically advanced, and culturally diverse, we are vulnerable to unpredictable disruption. Emergencies can escalate quickly in scale and severity.
But an alert with the nearest evacuation shelter can help others stay safe. A dispatch call to fire and rescue can help extinguish a home engulfed in flames. And a trained employee who administers CPR can be life-saving.
The proof is in the preparation. Emergency preparedness planning can minimize damage and injuries to people, the environment, and the community.
So we tapped into the minds of industry experts, including disaster and emergency management senior executives, risk communication officers, response and continuity consultants, academics, and former first responders to get their take on it all.
Here’s their advice on how to boost emergency preparedness across your organization and community.
1. Know your risks and assets
There isn’t a worse time to start thinking about emergency planning than when an active threat looms over your hometown. Effective emergency planning needs to happen in advance of an incident.
According to Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor and Emergency Management Coordinator, getting an initial understanding of what’s on the table and doing your risk analysis is the very first step.
“Define all potential threats and emergencies in your municipality and rank them in the order of impact and likelihood,” he says. “Once you know your assets and what available resources you have, you’ll be in better shape to respond.”
The most common hazards communities face are power outages, weather-related incidents, health and medical emergencies, and fires.
Other industry leaders, including Michael Curtis, President of The Response Team Inc., Pascal Rodier, Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader, and Scott Davis, Director and Vice President, Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario, recommend basing your risk on a scalable all-hazards approach. This approach focuses on developing specific capacities and assigning capabilities that matter most during a disaster.
According to Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management at Stoney Nakoda First Nations, implementing the proper training, leadership, and supplies is critical to address a broad range of emergencies.
“Do practice and tabletop exercises, work with mutual aid partners, and make sure things flow,” he says. “It may not always be by the book–for example, the Alberta 2013 floods–but you need to be able to learn from mistakes and revamp to improve.”
When looking at a risk chart, Crawford reveals that Stoney Nakoda is particularly more at risk with its communities surrounded by highways, pipelines, the Bow River, wildfires, and power outages from critical infrastructures. However, identifying all possible risk scenarios can help inform the resources you require and how to mitigate those outlined risks.
2. Build your team by rounding out responsibilities
When you’re in a pinch, you don’t have time to lose—so knowing exactly who’s doing what, when, and where is critical to prevent an incident from worsening. According to several industry leaders, building capacity is a non-negotiable stepping stone to emergency planning.
Letander advises establishing defined and overlapping roles and responsibilities for your staff at each of the four stages of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
But assigning responsibility isn’t just beneficial for organizational clarity. It can also be used strategically to develop effective communication. “Knowing who’s talking to media, who’s the primary government liaison, and who the right people are to address an event can create different stories, frustrations, and impact on your audience,” remarks Letander.
So it’s worth evaluating who’s the best person to execute an action based on the audience receiving your communications. Whether you consult an emergency director, a subject matter expert on the event, or an elected official can determine how effective your public response will be.
Additionally, your internal staff should understand your communications better than anyone. According to Davis, you should utilize the champions within your organization to help spread news and factual information.
“In the case of senior leadership teams, what I try to do with my fellow deputies in the fire department is ensure they hear about important communications before it hits the public,” says Davis. “When a municipality shares news with councillors in a region or district, it can help provide confidence in government.”
Part of understanding everyone’s responsibilities is identifying the resources available at your fingertips. As Crawford puts it: “it’s not even about just being prepared, but having enough resources, responders, and management teams.”
Speaking on behalf of First Nations Stoney Nakoda, Crawford stresses the need to build relationships with local partners and Indigenous Services Canada to understand ‘the why’ behind requests.
“No local fire department can put out a major fire [in Stoney Nakoda], but it’s how we can evacuate the community and manage with our capacity and our roles that will determine our success,” says Crawford. “We’re fairly remote here, with the closest town 30 minutes away. This means that for the first half-hour of an incident, we are on our own. And lots can happen during that time.”
That’s where mutual aid groups and collaborative efforts between municipalities come into play. Industry leaders Curtis, Rodier, and Letander encourage updating your list of suppliers regularly and considering where to find new vendors to meet your current needs.
Because contacts often change with every event, organizations such as EMLCanada make it easier to build out your partner network on a digital platform.
3. Make critical information easily accessible and multimodal
During a state of peace, the average human can typically recollect seven pieces of information. However, according to Ben Morgan, the Principal & Managing Director of Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications, this number reduces by more than half when we endure stressful situations. Our brains only latch onto imperative information that aids survival.
“When people experience high stress or high concern, the rules of communication change,” he says. “Suddenly, the of information we can process goes from 7 pieces of information to 3. That’s why the simplest forms of instruction are the most effective in crisis.”
As important as it is to simplify your communications with the public, your messages internally between team members require the same. In addition to creating hard copies of full-length emergency plans and updated contacts, Letander urges organizations to curate bite-sized pieces of information that are specific, concise, and skimmable so that anyone can quickly pick it up when time is limited.
“When you make content accessible for anyone to read, you develop a common language, which can help you solve a lot of challenges going forward,” explains Letander. “The more information that’s easier to find reduces questions and scrutiny.”
Additionally, Tim Riecker, Partner with Emergency Preparedness Solutions, exclaims that deploying “two messages a year about preparedness doesn’t cut it and neither does a bunch of messages giving the FEMA hotline after a disaster.”
Instead, he advises communicating information on multiple channels. “It should be multimodal,” he says. “Social media, speaking at local meetings, articles in the town newsletter, et cetera. Don’t be boring, don’t be technical, don’t be doom and gloom. Make it clear, make it interesting to them–not you–and make it brief.”
4. Don’t make the mistake of viewing everyone as the same
EM planning is about understanding different audiences. The Director of Emergency Disaster Services of The Salvation Army, Perron Goodyear, agrees that preparing risk communication templates is considered a best practice. However, he asserts that they should be tailored to unique populations.
“No one is exactly the same, so templates should be customized to reflect people of different socio-economic levels,” specifies Goodyear. “It’s essential to explain the importance of a preparedness plan in each community and how it’s not a burden for them to adopt or execute.”
Goodyear reveals that while some residents will follow a fire rescue plan to a tee, others–particularly those who belong to low-income households–may not believe they need a plan at all depending on the size of their property or their past exposure to experiencing such incidents.
He advocates increasing education and targeted informational sessions to overcome the perceived burden of a preparedness plan in lower socio-economic communities. Higher public participation and rhetoric around preparedness training in these communities can make a difference.
“An emergency preparedness week or info session on what to include in an emergency kit from a local thrift store can go a long way,” he says.
5. Bring municipalities together using a regional approach
“No community is ever left to their own devices when a disaster passes through,” asserts Curtis. “Regionalization is one of the ways we ensure a formalized process to support relationships, trust, and mutual respect among people in emergency management.”
Curtis suggests that by maintaining a strong regional focus, you can better tap into experienced personnel, their knowledge, structures, technology, and resources to aid local emergencies. Having a trustworthy network to lean on can help you improve the delivery and availability of required emergency services.
“Being willing, able, and persistent enough to not just take care of yourself but the neighbours on both sides of you can have a multiplying effect so that everyone is taken care of,” he continues. “Having verified contacts is super beneficial when things are burning to the ground and makes life easier when adrenaline is pumping.”
Additionally, Crawford admits that “no one has the full resources to manage big events on their own.” Instead, he asserts that municipalities must work together with nearby communities and mutual aid groups and meet monthly to discuss needs and tactics. “The key to building stronger connections is teamwork,” he says.
6. Regularly harness technology for effective results
“The number of home phones or landlines is very few these days,” states Goodyear. “So it’s our job as emergency professionals to reach people where they’re spending their time. Emergency alerts are designed to be timely. People expect that when something bad happens, it’ll be communicated to them versus them needing to go out and search for this information. The world we live in now has shifted because we enjoy and expect instant gratification.”
In the EM sector, authorities can deliver multiple messages across various channels to communicate with their teams and civilians, making their work faster and more efficient.
The digital world makes it so much easier to get information out to people now, notes Sarah Cowan, Masters Student of Disaster and Emergency Management. But, it is important to utilize a holistic approach in reaching people. We need to recognize there could be a technology gap, and not everybody is on all digital platforms or has access to them, such as social media. It’s critical to ensure messaging is delivered across multiple channels that we don’t neglect door to door.
When used with the right intent and practice, technology can also assist with interoperability, the notion that all players in the EM sector can seamlessly work in conjunction with each other to maximize their resources.
“Keeping contacts up to date is essential,” adds Davis. “Budgets can be tight, and it takes staff to update the EOC call list of contractors constantly, so having a portal to do that work for you and using partners to help with that such as EMLCanada can be beneficial.”
“With tech, you don’t need to see the incident to control it,” explains Rodier.
“Technology has surpassed what we know it can do; it’s just getting people to understand it. And when we utilize these advanced tools effectively, it could suggest the end of a traditional emergency operation centre.”
The bottom line is regularly practicing technology to see desired outcomes.
“When bad things happen, you revert to what you know,” explains Rodier. “When a lockdown occurs in the workplace, you need to train employees on vacating to the proper muster points. If there’s a change in locations, the force of habit often takes over in an emergency, and people could be evacuating to boardroom A when they should be going to boardroom B.”
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
When life and death hang in the balance, few things matter more than getting the help you need to save a life. Whether that’s issuing first responders on-site or evacuating people from an affected area, executing a coherent plan can reduce the amount of risk or harm to others.
While the first few moments of a crisis can determine how disruptive the aftermath will be, the key lies in the emergency planning and preparation ahead of time. From assessing risks to understanding the role of technology, you can more confidently face predictable events and tackle the unknown.
SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR INDUSTRY EXPERTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE
Pascal Rodier, Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader, Mentor, Educator, and Consultant.
Tim Riecker, Partner, Emergency Preparedness Solutions
Ben Morgan, Principal & Managing Director, Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications
Michael Curtis, President, The Response Team
Scott Roberts, President, International Association of Emergency Managers – Canada (IAEM)
Scott Davis, Director and Vice President, Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario
Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management, Stoney Nakoda First Nations
Sarah Cowan, Emergency Preparedness Intern, Masters Student of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University
Perron Goodyear, Director, Emergency Disaster Services, The Salvation Army
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EMLCanada offers a searchable online platform (EMLCanada.ca) to support connection within Canada’s emergency management sector and improve efficiency in locating products and services needed to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster situations. Using the simple principle that organizations and vendors can create and maintain their own current information online, the sector can eliminate the traditional time-consuming, inefficient, and redundant process of updating contact lists. Learn More.