Emergency Response Communications: When Technology Fails and Traditional Returns

The tragic tornado near Oklahoma City reminds us that even the most advanced technologies can’t always be counted on when we need them most. Sometimes, we might need to communicate the way our ancestors did.

While you may have a crisis plan in place, even the best-laid plans can be disrupted by a natural disaster or other large-scale crisis. Following the massive tornado that struck Moore County, Okla., some 34,000 people lost power, land phone lines were down and so many people were using mobile phones that cellular networks were gridlocked.

For companies trying to operate after a major disaster, navigating a devastated communications landscape can be just as challenging as navigating a town leveled by a tornado without the help of street signs and basic landmarks. From contacting employees to physically getting there just to survey damage to your facilities, emergency response communications today may require not just the latest tools but some that go back decades or even to the earliest days of civilization.

So consider the following approaches before, during and after a crisis:

  • Engage in traditional tactics if modern-day tactics such as text messages and email systems are inaccessible. These include posting flyers in public places, utilizing phone trees, simple hand delivery of information or sharing news by old-fashioned word of mouth.
  • Utilize online and social media channels to track down people and resources on the ground as well as access maps for navigation. For instance, encourage employees to register themselves or search for colleagues or loved ones using the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website or visit Google’s Crisis Response Center page. Monitor Facebook and other social media sites to look for other ways to engage with employees and their families as needed.
  • Identify and utilize backup facilities, including operations centers, offices and technology systems and arrange remote access for employees. Test these systems regularly through drills and other training programs to ensure smooth operation.
  • Activate your company’s “dark site” or crisis website, or a Web page dedicated to your efforts with appropriate messaging for every audience from employees to customers. Your website will serve as the main repository for information, so include phone numbers, maps and other important information.
  • Coordinate with your insurance and travel providers to determine what kind of communications assistance your plans might offer. Some insurance plans allot funds for communications during crisis situations, and some travel services can help locate employees who are traveling domestically or abroad.
  • Prepare for an influx of people wanting to help or offer condolences. Employees, vendors and other associates will look for ways to provide relief or share messages of condolence, and there should be a way for them to do so without impeding first responders or other important emergency response communications and recovery efforts. Employees without a designated role on the response team should be reminded to go about business as usual to the extent possible. It may be appropriate to set up a message board on the company intranet or designate one contact, a toll-free number or a dedicated email address to funnel these messages.
  • Give your “A Team” a rest by leveraging backups. Everyone gets tired, and situations of disastrous proportions require all hands on deck. However, in order to remain functional and effective, be sure to plot out a schedule for your team members to utilize backups and get much-needed rest.
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