What mistakes will cause emergency communication systems to undergo excessive stress or possibly fail in a disaster, and what steps should be taken to improve performance?
One of the biggest challenges for emergency communication centers is the wide range of situations that require responses – including man-made emergencies and natural disasters. Many of the best-known examples, such as Hurricane Katrina, required multiple waves of response that spanned months.
When an emergency occurs, a wide variety of federal, state, and local agencies must respond.
While the first response to a disaster typically falls on local emergency services, many emergencies require the services of multiple agencies, such as help from nearby municipalities, the state, and volunteer agencies.
The ability to respond quickly and effectively is critical to all organizations, but government agencies have particular challenges. They are faced with extremely high expectations for a rapid response. Given the right tools and technologies, government agencies can meet and even exceed those expectations.
In this article, I outline five of the most common mistakes and best practices agencies make in emergency communication. It is important to leverage technology for both inbound and outbound citizen and constituent communication, to improve the performance of the entire emergency communication system, and free up resources where they can be used most effectively.
What is Emergency Response Communications?
Emergency response communications consists of a complex set of tactical and logistical systems that enable effective emergency response management.
While many forms of communications are used during emergencies, our goal is to provide insight on how to best leverage and optimize the most frequently used channels, such as the phone, Web, SMS (short message service) text messaging, e-mail, and other large scale communication channels.
Emergency communications serve as a mission critical element of any emergency response plan. Increasingly, agencies are now relying on contact centers to perform these tasks, as the number of communications channels and touch points expand to include any channel to receive, access, and exchange voice, text, visual, and multimedia data with one another on demand, and in real time.
Five Frequent Mistakes
For many agencies, emergency response communications is a work in progress, as changes in technology and the response environment require the most sophisticated systems. Even those with time-tested systems in place fall into traps. What are some of the most common mistakes agencies make and how can they be avoided?
1. Don’t underestimate the need for ongoing communication
Don’t underestimate the importance of downstream waves of ongoing communication. By their nature, emergency responses place most of the emphasis on the first wave of response, when time is critical. While that approach is absolutely necessary, it sometimes creates an environment in which ongoing communication is under-resourced. For example, when Hurricane Ike recently ravaged Texas and caused one million people to flee, the biggest initial concern was evacuation but, in some areas, Ike turned out to be less destructive than originally thought. Once it became apparent that it was safe to return, the communications needs shifted to a second wave of information about which areas were safe to return to, and status updates on power, roads, and services. When a citizen receives an initial message it will spark a “return wave” of inbound requests for information. In addition, most emergencies will require several waves of status updates.
2. Don’t allow inbound demand to overwhelm both live and automated systems
Although typically agencies try to divert traffic from live assistance to self-service during emergencies, peak demand is difficult to manage. And, at peak capacity, demand can quickly overwhelm even multiple systems. A major emergency too often overloads the local authority’s response system in a matter of minutes or hours. Avoiding this requires an enhanced response management structure that not only diverts from live service to automated systems, but also load balances among multiple systems or sites. In real ity, many agencies will allow themselves to become reactive after the first wave, and end up being inundated by incoming calls or requests that could have been handled through proactive outbound communication. Even automated voice systems can quickly become clogged due to too many phone calls, and it is difficult to add lines or ports unless the agency is using managed services, outsourcers, or diverting overflow to other agencies. It is rare to find an agency that has done a good job of implementing such an overflow system.
3. Don’t let the lack of unified systems lead to uncoordinated communication
Few agencies have yet created, or plan to invest in, a true multi-channel capability to communicate with citizens. The challenge to having multiple independent communications channels is not only in balancing volume, but also in managing an agency’s ability to identify and route inquiries to the right resource. For example, if the intent of a caller is known and they have a need that is not addressed in the automated system, it may be more appropriate to direct them to a live resource.
4. Don’t fail to align systems with multiple agencies and response partners
When multiple agencies need to work together, their systems are often poorly integrated and ineffective. This results in duplication, chaos, and misinformation as each system provides its own unique content.
In the state of New York, for example, until a recent effort to revamp the system, many municipalities and other entities in the state (such as public school systems) had independent, uncoordinated emergency notification systems in place. This complex set of systems can often overlap or provide redundant information. It is important to note that these are not always voice-based systems and can include multiple communication methods, such as e-mail, instant messaging, fax, pagers, and SMS text. This interwoven morass of different systems is not only expensive to maintain, but can lead to uncoordinated or conflicting information – with potentially devastating results.
5. Don’t make content complex
Complex content can lead to confusion and, ultimately, more inbound requests for assisted service. Whenever citizens are confused or cannot get the information they need, inbound phone calls will increase, and the system will undergo more stress.
Complexity in a voice self-service system, where the agency tries to address a large number of questions, can lead to too many prompts in an IVR (interactive voice response), causing the citizen to “zero out” to speak to a live agent. In SMS text, avoid the use of unnecessary information, keep messages brief, and comply with the 160 character limitation. Use direct, straightforward language and communicate all necessary actions. Try to tailor SMS alerts to the audience whenever possible, to avoid adding information that is not relevant to the target audience.
Five Best Practices
Advanced government organizations are leading the way by embracing new technologies, capabilities, and ideas that improve emergency response communication. Here are a few of the best practices that are emerging:
1. Anticipate and pre-program content
While much of the challenge of each emergency is in delivering unique and timely content, a significant portion of the content programming can be done in advance to anticipate needs. For example, New York’s State Emergency Management Office (NYSEMO) sought to develop a system called NY-Alert, to align and rationalize its multiple systems. The agency spent 18 months developing a mass-dissemination portal that supports all the desired communication media, as well as 182 alert classifications, including alerts related to missing persons, road closures and other traffic issues, school safety, and animal recovery.
Developing classes of content in advance can enable better use of proactive outbound systems, which will significantly alleviate the crush of inbound traffic during emergencies. The NYSEMO system was set up for voice, e-mail, and outbound SMS. While such advance work will not eliminate the need to update for a specific emergency, it can go a long way towards making it easier to engage in proactive outbound communication.
2. Spread demand by leveraging virtualization and multi-agency capabilities
Agencies that spread capacity across multiple agencies and facilities dramatically reduce peak load volumes. The advantages of such an approach are seen in the growing use of 311 systems. Bringing together multiple agencies helps streamline the emergency response process and funnel inquiries to a central source. This creates a more efficient framework than independent responses from multiple public and private sources.
One of the keys to this approach has been the use of Internet telephony and IP technology, which make it possible for a single phone system to transfer calls over the Internet to multiple departments or agencies located anywhere. Such technology eliminates the need for independent phone systems and switches, none of which were able to communicate with each other.
3. Overestimate capacity needs
Emergency access demands inevitably lead to spikes in volume. Government organizations are well served to err on the high side of expectations rather than cutting it too fine when they estimate their capacity needs.
For example, in the NY-Alert system, they followed this best practice by stress testing the system at high levels. An agency that plans and tests at similarly high levels is unlikely to be overwhelmed during an emergency.
4. Incorporate multi-channel capabilities
Five channels have emerged as the most important ones to support: e-mail, SMS text, voice self-service, live assisted service, and proactive automated outbound calls. The advantage of an integrated multi-channel approach is that it enables citizens to enter the system from a variety of touch points while still receiving consistent information and instruction. The agencies hoping to embrace best practices will also look beyond these core capabilities, to support fax, integrate with geographic information systems (GIS), and leverage graphics capabilities such as 3G phones or video.
5. Leverage emerging new resources
A variety of new resources are available that most agencies have not yet tapped into, but should. For example, the U.S. government is establishing a public-private partnership with commercial mobile service providers to transmit emergency text alerts to mobile phones, beginning in October of 2008. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is acting as the agency that validates these emergency text notifications before they are sent to the commercial mobile service providers and then on to mobile phone subscribers.
Another emerging set of resources are the community and social networking sites that can serve as a resource during emergencies. Although most organizations are not yet prepared to embrace them, they offer an important adjunct to existing systems. To reach younger people, agencies may soon want to consider how to incorporate blogs, community forums, peer discussions, or other Web 2.0 mechanisms as resources suitable for emergency communication.
While many agencies are much better prepared than they were only a few years ago, the majority are still looking to evolve their approach. It is an ongoing process, but each bit of progress is critical to ensuring a safer citizenry.
Bill Grabner is the director of sales for Genesys Government and Higher Education and is deeply involved with developing and implementing creative solutions for federal, state, and local agencies to help them better serve and inform their constituents.