Consider your technology, your workers to achieve effective crisis communications

Technology advances help make crisis management easier, but facility managers and planners need to remain vigilant and to keep their workers in the know about potential developments

By Ray White, Federal Signal Safety and Security Division October 18, 2013

Not that long ago, emergency communications for large industrial, commercial, and institutional complexes such as universities and hospitals relied primarily on devices such as visual and audible signals, and public address and intercom systems. Technology advances have propelled a dramatic increase in the number of communication mediums applicable for emergency warning and notification—everything from cell phones, text messaging and two-way radios, to LED signage and message boards, to the entire spectrum of IP-based technologies including email, instant messaging, smartphones and, most recently, social networks. Consequently, facility managers and planners are growing more vigilant about evaluating communication options that expand both reach and control while increasing overall flexibility.

Technology advances support a what-if approach to crisis management that encourages managers to constantly examine potential emergency scenarios that could impact a particular facility. Some regions of the country are at special risk of natural disasters such as tornadoes, while other areas are in greater danger from flooding or wildfires. As there is always the possibility of a fire or workplace violence, some facilities, such as chemical plants and refineries, face increased risk as terrorist targets. It goes without saying that comprehensive emergency preparedness calls for maintaining the resources, procedures, and systems for every possible contingency.

Paralleling the deployment of advanced communications technologies is an increased emphasis on those unique human factors that relate directly to how employees will respond to an emergency situation. The most obvious factor that might affect employee response to a crisis tends to be language, but there are also other cultural issues, as well as the needs of those with physical disabilities.

Putting plans in place

Emergency preparedness should address one of four primary action plans: evacuation, take immediate shelter, shelter-in-place, and lockdown.

Among the earmarks of a successful evacuation plan are establishing clear escape routes and ensuring that doors are neither blocked nor locked. A general alarm-type evacuation also needs to take into account where people typically congregate, while designating a "mustering" station where employees can be accounted for during the crisis.

Primarily a response to natural disasters such as tornadoes, take immediate shelter plans center on designating indoor safe areas. Employees need to be advised of possible secure areas within the facility, as well as the safest, quickest ways to access them. Another priority is the development and maintenance of systems capable of providing dependable communications facility wide.

Shelter-in-place plans direct employees to seek refuge in nondesignated safe areas, typically a small interior room. Communicating the need to seek whatever shelter is immediately available is especially critical in the event of a toxic chemical spill, hazardous gas leak, or workplace violence incident. In some cases, planners also must consider options for ensuring fresh air or providing protective areas sealable against impure or poisonous air.

Lockdowns are generally associated with workplace violence. In such cases, emergency managers need to ensure employees are acquainted not only with proper lockdown procedures, but also with possible shelter options. Defining communication procedures between employees, management, first responders, and other officials may prove crucial to employee safety, and even assist in bringing the crisis to a safe conclusion.

Consider the human factors

Comprehensive emergency plans require thorough review of the many human factors reflecting the needs of everyone working in the facility. It is necessary to ensure that physically disabled persons, in wheelchairs for instance, are able to access designated safe locations such as the basements commonly used as emergency shelters. With approximately 35 million Americans suffering from some level of hearing disability, it is now important to accommodate the hearing impaired, as well as employees who work in high-noise environments, by providing alternative methods of emergency alerting/notification communications (i.e., visual warning lights and electronic message boards).

At many facilities, language presents another issue for planners. Emergency warnings broadcasted over a public address system obviously must be understood by everyone in the facility. Today, many large facilities find it necessary to issue warnings in multiple languages.

For years, inventorying a facility’s emergency communication capabilities primarily involved reviewing such traditional resources as bells and horns for general alarm, fire alarms, landlines, two-way radios, and warning lights. Nowadays, however, emergency managers and planners are considered remiss if they do not evaluate the full scope of technologies in order to expand their communications options.

While cell phones and text messaging come foremost to mind, it has become critical to examine the extensive advantages available through local area and wide area networks. Today’s emergency communications mix should include the deployment of IP-based communications that includes email and instant messaging; take advantage of the growing acceptance of smartphone technology; and leverage the ever-increasing popularity of social media.

Many large facilities tie their emergency communications directly with local radio and television broadcast stations in order to expedite warning/notification to neighboring communities. Other recent innovations include outdoor electronic signage and dedicated emergency websites.

The backup plan

Redundancy is a critical aspect of any emergency preparedness strategy, and this is especially true when it comes to communicating essential alerts to signal dangerous situations or unsafe conditions. Planners must ask themselves: What if all power is lost to the facility? What if the phone lines are down? What if the cell towers are unable to cope with a sudden surge in demand?

Additionally, they must have a plan for fast-breaking emergencies like the explosion that occurred this spring at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, or the deadly Texas City refinery accident in 2005. In both of these cases there simply was no time for complex decision making. Emergency plans needed to go into effect automatically.

Beyond emphasizing the importance of having a hosted location offsite, a catastrophic event like an explosion illustrates the need to coordinate disaster plans with both IT and security management to ensure that sufficient communications backup is always available.

An effective emergency communications strategy that assures reliable backup throughout the system is based on the knowledge that during a crisis it is unlikely that every email, every text message, or every voice communication will make it through. Ultimately, a system that offers redundant reliability, and that is supported by ongoing employee training covering both emergency procedures and communication protocols, stands a significantly better chance of making sure that each and every employee either hears and/or sees the urgent warnings that prompt immediate protective action. 

Ray White is with the safety and security division of Federal Signal.