On this day, we, like many of you, are taking a moment to remember the tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks.
In the wake of the many emergencies we see every year, from terror attacks to natural disasters, emergency situations seem to be on the rise. And, as the number of emergencies increase, so does the need for government organizations to connect and alert their residents, communities, and other stakeholders quickly and efficiently.
I recently read the article “3 Tips for Posting Emergency Information Online”. In the article, a product manager from Google’s Crisis Response team discusses a few ways to share emergency information online and how search engines can utilize it.
While it’s always important to make data easily searchable and available on open platforms, posting information on a website or open map isn’t enough. If a citizen is trapped in their basement during a severe storm with a cell phone that doesn’t have Internet capabilities, they can’t utilize a search engine. They can’t access a shared local map. They can’t access an RSS feed. How will they get the information they need to stay safe?
During an emergency, the search engines, maps and open data help, but it’s so much more impactful to push information out and reach people directly instead of relying on them to browse for a landing page.
That’s why I wanted to respond to this article with: 3 tips for getting emergency information to the public
1. Build Your Audience
While organizations should focus and plan for outbound communications during an emergency, it’s even more critical for them to focus on who they will communicate with. Powerful technology tools and strategies are critical for emergency messaging, but your message won’t matter if no one sees it
When an emergency strikes, that’s NOT the time to try and find an audience of people in an affected area. Emergency groups MUST collect and engage a digital audience throughout the year, making it easier to connect with more people during an emergency.
All departments within government organizations should be building a direct audience of email addresses and phone numbers daily. If someone signs up for Parks and Recreation updates, they should be prompted to sign up for emergency communications at the same time.
2. Reaching People in a Mobile World
Most emergency communicators have an e911 list that gives them the ability to call landlines in an affected area. But the plain truth is that in today’s world, landlines are dying. Data from a recent CDC study that showed more than 50% of Americans don’t have or use landline phones. Combine that with the fact that there are over 322 million wireless phones in the United States, and emergency communicators now have a daunting task of reaching everyone on the go.
While it’s important to reach landlines, emergency managers who rely mainly on e911 technology are not reaching everyone they need to. Government organizations charged with keeping citizens safe and informed need to find new ways to communicate, across old and new channels, to provide safety information to citizens during an emergency.
To reach the broadest audience, emergency communications need a multichannel approach: send emails, SMS text messages, voice messages, social media posts AND display emergency information with a prominent Web banner. And if you want to take your efficiency to the next level, you should be able to disseminate your emergency message across all these channels from one platform.
Bonus tip: make sure your organization is able to integrate with FEMA’s IPAWS system, which can further disseminate your message across TV, radio, digital signs, and mobile push notifications (like Amber Alerts).
3. Focus on the content, not the process
But what about when an emergency really does hit? Are you focusing on content or process? Is it easy for you to get a message out, or are you fumbling with a system that you haven’t used in months?
Earlier I mentioned the importance of working across departments to build an audience, and the execution process is no different. If emergency management and other departments combine forces and integrate communications, the key communications staff will be familiar with the system and will be prepared and trained on how to send a message.
Having an emergency response plan in place critical, but emergency management personnel also need to leverage updated technology to take advantage of communications tools that are simple and automated. Because during an emergency, if you can save a few hours, minutes, or even seconds by using automation, that matters.
In the aforementioned article, Matthew Stepka, Google vice president of technology for social impact, was spot on in advising government organizations to publish advised alerts using open Web formats like RSS. Not only does that make this data available to Google, but it also makes the data available for automated and immediate outbound messaging. Emergency managers can hook their digital communications tool to these feeds, which can automatically package and re-purpose that content for email, SMS, social media and more.
The most successful emergency managers will leverage the strategies around sending critical information directly to the public, while also making that information available and open online. In the end, the more people you reach, the more people you’ll save.