Experts have long argued that more sophisticated crisis communication protocols could have prevented many of the devastating human and commercial losses sustained at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (CBS News, The Conversation) Fortunately, emergency communication standards in the public and private sectors have come a long way in the past 16 years.
9/11: How Communications Failed
Firsthand accounts of Lower Manhattan on September 11 paint a picture of confusion and chaos. Chains of command and lines of authority were unclear, partially due to long-time friction between the city’s police and fire departments, and partially due to inadequate planning. Prior evacuation drills had been limited at best, and no protocols had been established for evacuating tower occupants trapped on the floors above a fire. What’s more, information was disseminated in a haphazard way to the public, to public servants on the scene, and to medical professionals treating victims. Businesses, first responders and even public officials didn’t get the warnings or accurate information needed to safely evacuate the towers.
To make matters worse, technical communications proved insufficient. Cellular service failed completely. The phones, pagers and radio channels of police and firefighters were overtaxed. Many 9-1-1 operators, inundated with tens of thousands of calls throughout the day, had little idea what was happening at the twin towers. People were put on hold, told to stay put when they should have evacuated, or told to evacuate to the roof when they should have evacuated down the stairs and out the building. Word of mouth, insufficient at best in a disaster of this scale and severity, quickly became the most reliable form of communication. Looking back, today’s communication protocols may have lessened the devastating impact of this tragedy.
What Today’s Emergency Communication Plans Get Right
Authorities and first responders have taken the communication fiascos of 9/11 to heart and worked hard to implement more effective protocols, including the following:
- Uniform communication tools. Front-line personnel must be able to talk to one another in real time, whether it’s by radio, phone or another communication channel. Anything less will frustrate the efforts of first responders and can cost business assets and even lives. Although comprehensive communication tools are now the norm for many emergency response systems, during 9/11, the real-time channels first responders used to stay abreast of one another weren’t anywhere near as effective as needed. The fire department, the city police department and the Port Authority police all used different radio systems and different frequencies, meaning they couldn’t coordinate rescue efforts. And the rest, as we all know, is history.
- Backup systems. Onsite and offsite leaders need multiple channels to communicate with each other and citizens on the front of lines of any emergency. That way, if one line of communication fails, as happened during 9/11, you aren’t cut off from the people on the scene. This may mean adding satellite dishes, portable cellular towers or even portable radios to your communications repertoire, as many organizations now do. It also may mean adding redundant network connections and round-the-clock monitoring of key communications systems.
- Networks spanning entire ecosystems. Although hospitals called in additional staff on 9/11, there was no central database to tell first responders which facilities were full and which had additional capacity. Thus, it was anyone’s guess where best to send patients. Some hospitals were overwhelmed while others were underused.
Many regions have learned from these mistakes. In Ohio, for example, a Real Time Activity Status application connects hospitals in several counties and lets ambulance dispatchers know which facility has space in its emergency rooms. Likewise, numerous lives were saved by a comparable system after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
Best Practices for Today’s Organizations
Advance communications planning is the best way to ensure your people and assets are safe and your organization experiences as little downtime as possible during a disaster. Here’s how to get started:
- Determine who to contact. Decide who you will alert about a mounting crisis, what you will tell them and how you want them to act. Consider that you may want to convey different messages to different people within the company depending on their role. Always share insider information with your employees before sharing with the public and the media.
- Select modes of communication. Plan for automated mass delivery of information and use multiple channels of communication in case one fails. Think beyond email and text alerts. Some organizations add a toll-free number to their contingency plans that employees can call for updates during times of emergency. If you use these notification systems for routine business operations ahead of time, your people will familiar with them before a crisis strikes.
- Choose spokespeople wisely. Consider who you will trust to release sensitive information to staff, customers, partners, the media and social media. Hire a seasoned professional and ensure they have adequate media training. Establish clear-cut protocols for communication during times of crisis. Decide how you will manage rumors and other information on social media. The idea is to control the message rather than let it control your organization.
- Consider the tone and timing of messages. Develop a boilerplate for emergency communications in advance and think about how it will be received by your people. Weave your organization’s core values throughout every message you will convey, both internally and externally. Transparency and sincerity are gold, and voice messages from executives and spokespeople during times of crisis always trump written ones. Communicate with staff early and often, but be careful not to release information before you have key details.
- Test the plan. Conduct a risk and vulnerability analysis of your communications plan during times of calm. Anticipate what could go wrong, identify weaknesses in your plan and adjust as needed. Reassess and update your plan annually, at the very least. Hopefully you’ll never need to put it into practice, but if you do, you’ll ease the chaos by being prepared.
What can you do now to ensure you send clear messages under pressure?
Download our communication brief Communicating Under Threat to learn more about how you can enhance your business continuity strategies by avoiding common mistakes and following best practices in communication.