“The time to exchange business cards is not during a crisis, but long before.”
Out of a dozen interviews with industry experts in the emergency management sector, nearly all recited this mantra. Emergency preparedness is about who you know, the trust you’ve cultivated with the public beforehand, and logistical elements that aid the coordination of a crisis.
All this and more can make it possible for emergency managers to increase their preparedness and response efforts to protect citizens and their property. The stronger your connections are in the EM sector and with the public, the more coordinated your response can be and the more integrated the industry and community becomes.
However, building relationships between industry partners and the public is not as cut and dry as it may seem and is why failed communication can make a bad situation worse. Fortunately, effective rapport is achievable as long as you’re willing to share information and lend resources during the good times and the bad.
By espousing open communication and inter-organizational cooperation between EM professionals and the public, you can expedite the actions necessary to mitigate and resolve crises more efficiently.
The benefits of emergency planning and preparation
Developing a plan has advantages. From discovering unrecognized hazards to anticipating solutions and more, the planning process can help you rise to the occasion when rapid decisions are required in a short amount of time. Drawn from our discussions with a group of industry experts, planning can help you:
Determine Your Risk Assessment
Prepare templates, documents & resources
Assign roles and responsibilities
Develop policies and inform logistics
When and how to forge meaningful connections to bolster preparedness
Identify risks and hazards
Start at the beginning. In emergency management, it’s critical to know what you’re up against. According to Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor and Emergency Management Coordinator, EM professionals should evaluate and communicate the risks and hazards to their own internal teams long before addressing the public.
By effectively communicating with your team first, you can set the tone for all relationships that follow. Letander recommends aligning your understanding with pre-populated internal messaging, which will be vital in getting others to cooperate when a crisis occurs.
“Your command system should bring people together and understand the roles in emergency,” adds Scott Davis, Director and Vice President of Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario. “It’s important that you stay in your lane and that the information that comes from your command systems represents a singular voice of your team.”
In Davis’ experience, communications should escalate towards elected officials or the senior leadership of a private or public entity. “In the case of a municipality, you must know what steps to take, what assistance you need to support communications from an EOC,” he says.
Once the risks and hazards have been communicated to key stakeholders, it’s important to share relevant information with the public before an emergency occurs so they too can understand how to protect themselves against possible threats.
Build knowledge and relationships through training
Regular training can remind and equip citizens to respond and take care of themselves and others to keep risks top of mind. According to Perron Goodyear, Director of Emergency Disaster Services at The Salvation Army, annual, quarterly, or seasonal programs and events such as fire safety or emergency preparedness week can educate the public on essential safety practices that could be life-saving.
From a municipal perspective, risk and hazard awareness can be communicated through consistent community participation.
“Setting up tradeshows and interactive educational programs can help raise citizens’ risk awareness,” adds.
“Inviting schools, clubs, and special interest groups such as Boy Scouts or Guides can increase preparedness when they learn from entities like the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and St. John Ambulance. Where you can incorporate the opportunity to be tactile too, like seeing or touching an EMS stretcher, can be effective.”
“Constant and continuous relationship building and checking in every couple months, even when there’s little activity to do matters. These small acts make a big impact,” asserts Michael Curtis, President, The Response Team.
Tuning into community members’ needs and understanding their present-day concerns before emergencies can inspire public confidence. Curtis recommends developing a recognized presence and fostering genuine relationships, so community members can learn to trust you and your capabilities and believe that you have their best interests at heart.
Similarly, Letander echoes the sentiment of not assuming people have what they already need. Instead, he suggests identifying opportunities to fill any resource gaps and understand the challenges people face firsthand.
But one of the most critical considerations to staying informed is determining the appropriate channels to reach your audience. “You have to use different methodologies,” explains Davis. “Not just handouts, or relying on advertisements or websites alone. You gotta look at how the audience is touched.”
Additionally, Scott Roberts, President, International Association of Emergency Managers Canada (IAEM), highlights the advantages of harnessing mass notification technology and the ease in communication it affords the public. He notes that when messages are sent in moderation, a mass notification system can help add value to your relationships with the public by garnering collective feedback and interest while also communicating emergencies.
“We’re never far away from our devices,” he says. “Receiving emails, texts, and phone calls can be helpful, but we need to ask ourselves, ‘what do citizens want from it?’ and what should our frequency of communications be?”
Roberts advises considering your objectives when using such technology and being cognizant not to overcommunicate because the public can grow numb to too many messages and ignore important calls to action.
Tips for cultivating trust authentically in emergency management
While mistrust can spread in just seconds, trust isn’t as easy to gain traction and operates on a different timeline. Public trust and relationships between emergency responders, managers, and partners require more time and nurture.
Here are 3 ways to improve connections and relationships while prioritizing emergency preparedness:
1) Centralize content
Letander emphasizes the importance of making resources readily accessible, whether it’s bite-sized pieces of information during a time crunch or a consolidated website that hosts real-time facts. Doing so allows people to capitalize on opportunities and make informed choices with the knowledge they have.
“Barrier-free access to information goes a long way,” exclaims Letander. “Getting information out consistently and refusing to let it get buried fosters a clear understanding of how government works, how we assign roles, and how people will come together for our communities. Pre-populating documents, templates, and getting processes ready before a disaster makes everyone’s jobs easier.”
2) Listen to your audience’s needs and co-create solutions
Among making information easily accessible, Letander warns against assuming the best interests of a community without hearing it from them first. Where communication often breaks down is in a misalignment of expectations.
“Part of building relationships in emergency management is letting people know what your scope and limitations are, what’s in your control, and setting up proper expectations,” says Letander. “The idea is never to oversell what you can do but to be honest. Communicating your boundaries allows you to carry open dialogue between your staff and community members.”
In addition, Letander expresses that gathering feedback in person and using surveys and polls can also help assess a community’s strengths, identify their needs and where they want to go in the future. For connections to go the distance, value needs to be felt and received on both ends.
Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management at Stoney Nakoda First Nations, further underscores the sentiment of putting your audience first.
“Stoney comprises three separate nations,” he explains. “We did open houses and listened to the concerns of local residents, and what we thought the big concerns might be weren’t always what the community wanted.”
Crawford explains how essential it is to speak with chiefs, councillors, and band managers when developing trustworthy relationships. “It’s important to get them on board and keep them informed,” he adds. “At the height of the pandemic, we began meeting weekly. Now, we meet every six weeks while still sending out monthly updates.”
3) Employ brevity in your communications
Connection occurs between you and your audience after reaching a level of mutual understanding. And part of that is through the way you communicate. According to Tim Riecker, Partner with Emergency Preparedness Solutions, brevity establishes trust in your relationships.
“Communications should be short, cogent, and rapid-fire so that if people are interested, they’ll click and read more,” he adds. “This helps you build up your relationships.” Riecker also asserts that when you reference factual information from reliable sources, you can spark a connection through unified understanding, and people will look to you as someone they can trust.
Harness technology to build more trust and stronger relationships with citizens & colleagues
Public engagement is the key to growing existing relationships, forging new ones, and repairing fractured connections.
Industry leaders agree that centralizing information and sharing it on digital platforms such as a municipality’s official website, social media channels, or through mass notification systems can bring EM professionals closer to the needs of their residents and colleagues.
“We need to actually do something and make the community aware of what’s going on,” says Crawford, who reveals the positive growth of Stoney Nakoda First Nations’ Facebook page and the local community radio ads and bulletins they’ve employed to garner stronger relationships.
Additionally, Letander presses how surveys and polls are another part of public engagement that can inform early policy, education, and future infrastructure on how emergency actions can be executed. And when EMs and community members can’t be in the same room together, he suggests that they can unite digitally and collaborate through remote partnership.
Relationships are greater than the sum of their parts
No community accomplishes everything on its own, especially in emergency management, where the outcome relies on the power of relationships. When community members, elected officials, and other stakeholders in EM operate in unison, they can achieve more together than they ever could on their own.
But it’s not just about strength in numbers; it’s about effective communication too. The two go hand-in-hand in emergency management performance. Having a coordinated and systematic approach to sharing information can help strengthen your decision-making when it matters most.
SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR INDUSTRY EXPERTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE
Perron Goodyear, Director, Emergency Disaster Services, The Salvation Army
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
Tim Riecker, Partner, Emergency Preparedness Solutions
Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management, Stoney Nakoda First Nations
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