Emergency managers are responsible for leading their staff, citizens, media and partners through disasters and emergency situations. When disasters strike, panic and confusion can ensue, and it’s up to disaster managers to set a good example, and remain diligent and calm at all times. One critical skill that emergency managers can use to navigate an emergency is proper and effective communication.
Clear, consistent, and timely communication is crucial to managing disaster response efforts and emergencies. Emergency managers need to present simple messages, keep the information consistent and release new updates as soon as they are ready. Without proper communication, misinformation and miscommunication can flourish and result in injury or fatalities. Whether it is a statewide crisis or a localized emergency, communication is one of the strongest tools an emergency manager has at their disposal.
Fortunately, leaders can take advantage of a few communication tips to spread information, orders, and directions efficiently.
An emergency is no time to mince words or use impressive vernacular. It’s a time to present information with simplicity and clarity so that everyone understands what is happening and the instructions to follow. Emergency managers can keep their message simple by outlining the situation, highlighting the necessary background information, and the actions that need to be or are preparing to be taken.
For example: If there is a building fire, the leadership or emergency manager will communicate to the workers what is a happening, the necessary details, and what they will do. In this case the message would be, “There is a fire. It is inside the building on the 3rd level. We are going to evacuate down the stairs.”
It’s also important to use commonly known names of places and things, avoid unnecessary details (the fire was caused by so-and-so, this situation, etc.) and to provide the same message to everyone.
As important as clarity, the consistency of a message helps ensure everyone is on the same page. In certain crises, there may be more than one authority sharing information and it needs to be identical to the others’ message. When information is presented, it needs to be given with one voice; this is particularly important for avoiding misinformation and miscommunication.
Information can be easily misunderstood and translated differently, so maintaining one message via all authorities and media platforms can help reduce these pitfalls. It can also help to repeat the same message so there is less room for confusion. People become disoriented during emergencies and may need to hear the same message multiple times before it sinks in.
Not only does the same message need to be maintained, it needs to be updated in a timely fashion so that those in danger can react and adapt accordingly.
The third part of the proper communication trifecta is timeliness. Along with a clear and consistent message, emergency managers need to have an awareness of time. If too much time goes by without any recurring information or updates, miscommunication and incorrect assumptions may arise.
Even when there is nothing new to say, reassure others with a repeating message as well as a rough timeline for when new information will be available. Being open and sharing as soon as possible are important communication techniques during a crisis that promotes trust and decreases the possibility of injury or death. Emergency managers can even admit that they have no new information as long as it spurns the spread of misinformation. The key is to keep people calm, and people can remain calm when they have up-to-date information and a timeline to adhere to.
Timely, consistent and clear messages need to translate to all communication methods as well. While these methods include TV and radio, there is another resource that is being used more and more for immediate information: social media.
Emergency managers need to adapt with the times, and social media has become a major information source for people. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of adults go to social media outlets for their news. In addition, systems like Facebook’s Safety Check promote people’s engagement on social media for disasters and emergencies.
Due to its wide use and ability to update instantaneously, social media platforms need to be utilized and monitored. In an effort to keep the messages clear and consistent, emergency managers must correct any misinformation and provide the correct information before it gets out of control. This means engaging with people online, offering the newest and latest data and providing answers or reassurance to those who are concerned.
Social media is ideal for quickly reaching a large group of people, but may not be necessary depending on the emergency. Part of an emergency manager’s role is to identify the most appropriate communication level and presence.
Major disasters that affect a wide range of people may require the use of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), or a missing child may prompt the use of the AMBER Alert. Emergency managers need to understand what communication is necessary and equal to the crisis.
The appropriate communication methods will reach people that are affected, and can be reliable even with limited accessibility. TVs and radios are some of the most common communication methods, but newer ones are being implemented to further connect with target audiences with greater reliability. Methods such as social media notifications and text messages can reach individuals quickly and personally for better safety assurance.
Emergency managers aren’t responsible for daily casual communication; they are responsible for keeping people safe during potential fatal emergencies and disasters. It takes calm, brave and patient people to become reliable emergency professionals. They are one of the last lines of defense and can prevent people from getting hurt when chaos and confusion is at its highest. Clear, consistent, and timely communication from crisis leaders can make the difference in how people react to extreme situations.
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