Eight Guidelines to Consider When Building an Emergency Communication Plan for Your Organization
A strategic — and well-tested — emergency plan can help your staff respond effectively in a crisis.
Emergency planning is something we all know we should do, even though it may not be your top priority. Day-to-day responsibilities and the distractions that arise make it so easy to defer this critical business planning. However, an emergency or business continuity plan is well worth the time. Here’s how it will help you and your team respond to nearly any situation.
In a crisis, your brain and body are under stress — and that can lead to poor decision making in the moment. The goal of your emergency plan is to choose the most appropriate course of action when you’re not in a crisis situation so that you don’t have to make decisions when you’re least equipped to do so.
Critical Elements of an Emergency Plan
Start with the people involved. You’ll need to ensure that you’re meeting the needs of all of your stakeholders — taking into account their physical location in proximity to the emergency situation. Your stakeholders might include staff, customers, visitors, members, contractors, people who interact with your facility online or by phone, the media (depending on the situation and your role in the community), and the general public. What information will you need to communicate to them during a crisis? How will you need to keep them safe or reassure them?
Then look at your facilities and infrastructure. What might happen to your physical environment during specific types of crises? Will your technology infrastructure — both on-site and off-site backups and redundancies — continue to serve you and your stakeholders? What physical and technology tools should you have on hand to help you communicate effectively during a crisis?
Finally, think about any compliance or regulatory issues that may come up during a crisis. These will vary based on your location and industry, but compliance is a critical factor when developing a strategic emergency plan.
Emergency Planning Steps
- Recruit the appropriate people and form a designated team.
Emergency planning teams should include all the major areas of your business, including front-line staff, IT, HR, facilities, risk management, and communications.
You may be tempted to help keep things simple by only bringing in certain people when you’re discussing items relevant to their function, but this can backfire when those stakeholders have valuable insight about how to respond in times you don’t realize they would need to be involved. To keep things moving smoothly, limit the meetings to a specific time period — that respects everyone’s time while ensuring the emergency plan will benefit from the broadest perspective available.
- Brainstorm the types of emergencies that could happen.
Run this like a typical brainstorming session. Everyone contributes their ideas and all get captured.
You can get pretty deep in the weeds during this step, so after your initial brainstorming, prioritize the potential emergencies by their likelihood to happen and the potential severity. For example, if you live in an area where floods are more common than earthquakes, you would want to go through a flood-related scenario sooner. Time of year can be a factor. In the fall, it might be better to focus on weather events that are more likely to happen during that season and during winter (floods, ice storms, frozen pipes, etc.) first. Or, if you’re in charge of managing school safety, then school lockdowns and building evacuations may be priorities for your crisis planning.
You may already have some processes in place, so you should assess whether they need to be refreshed before moving on to new brainstormed ideas. Look at what is working (especially if you’ve already been through one of your potential crisis types), what you can improve, and what automations or tools would help your team respond better, faster, and more appropriately. For example, your communication system may allow you to broadcast NWS (National Weather Service) alerts to your stakeholders so they are informed of predicted and ongoing weather emergencies. Integrating NWS alerts with your emergency notification system enables your organization to automatically share weather alerts and requires little-to-no intervention from staff.
- Look at each of the constituent groups and what they might need during an emergency.
Depending on the crisis and the needs of your stakeholder groups, you may find that you need to send multiple messages about the same event, depending on who needs to know what. You’ll want to ensure that your communication plan addresses this need and that your system makes it easy to manage this through a streamlined activation process.
For example, you may need to remotely activate notifications if an emergency occurs after hours, so you’ll want to make sure that authorized personnel can securely access your notification system from both on- and off-site.
Also ensure you’re in compliance with industry regulations and best practices for gathering, storing, and broadcasting to stakeholders’ email addresses, landlines, mobile phones, or other contact information. If your team remotely accesses the emergency notification system, ensure security of off-site systems matches the same security for on-site systems. Additionally, make sure your emergency communication systems provide accessible options for users with visual and hearing impairments to ensure you’re in compliance with standards set by NFPA, ADA, OSHA, or other regulatory agencies.
- Inventory the physical systems to provide service and communication during a crisis.
Look at your existing communication technologies like IP and analog systems, beacons, strobes, digital signage, messaging services, notification software (hosted or on-prem), and any other physical resources used to address and communicate in a crisis. Assess whether they are reliable, scalable, and effective to use for emergency communication.
Things to consider:
- Can they provide the right information to your stakeholders in a timely manner?
- Are they scalable to support the number of alerts you need to send without crashing?
- Do they help your organization efficiently manage communication, saving time and effort during emergencies?
- Do your current technologies and procedures provide an efficient way to manage simultaneous notifications across single and multiple sites (if necessary)?
- Do you have the ability to alert people located on and off premise (if necessary)?
- Can you simultaneously activate notifications containing information targeted to different groups of people?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, please see the following section for suggestions on how to address your communication deficits.
- Invest in additional systems, as necessary.
Once you’ve assessed your needs, you may find you still have a gap in your emergency communication procedures due to factors such as system incompatibility, network limitations, or scalability. You may find investing in a unified notification solution can help fill this gap and bring tremendous value to your emergency communication strategy.
Industry pioneer Syn-Apps LLC has been developing notification solutions since 2001 that provides the interoperability, scalability, and functionality organizations need to efficiently manage network-wide emergency notifications. Many benefit from functionality like one-touch activation, which simultaneously sends alerts to disparate endpoints. Unified solutions like Syn-Apps’ can dramatically lower response times and improve situational awareness and safety.
For example, before installing Syn-Apps’ notification software, one customer reported that it took nearly 20 minutes to deliver a single emergency notification to 15 buildings. After deploying Syn-Apps’ software, the customer was able to activate and deliver notifications across all buildings in 20 seconds or less to all locations.
- Assess the training level of your staff.
Your team may need training to effectively use your notification systems, especially if you’ve added new equipment and processes or have experienced staff turnover. Your vendor partners should be able to provide helpful resources or organize these trainings. Consider providing periodic refresher trainings after the initial training to ensure that information remains current and your systems remain up-to-date.
Also think about offering general crisis training that can help staff use stress management methods to help keep their mind clear during an emergency. Train your team on the benefits automated and pre-recorded notifications can provide during stressful situations. These are valuable features commonly available in industry-leading notification systems that are designed to help take the burden off an already-stressed person by rapidly communicating information that is clear and easy to understand — no shaky, unintelligible audio or confusion about what to say during a live emergency broadcast. In addition, they’re typically formatted for accessibility, so stakeholders with disabilities can receive the same communication in the format that works best for them — without requiring anyone to rapidly transcribe the notification.
- Run through a sample of the crisis scenarios as a group to test your planned response.
This step is a discussion, as you assess the most appropriate ways to respond to specific crises. Make sure you’re covering internal and external communication, physical needs, technology needs, potential for injury to people and damage to structures — and what needs to happen in each scenario.
You might use a spreadsheet to ensure that you’re covering all potential needs for every possible crisis. Many columns may simply be marked “not applicable” during the discussion, but it is better to be thorough so you don’t miss a critical tool or resource your stakeholders will need.
This is where your prioritization will come in handy. If you’ve brainstormed many potential emergencies, it may take your team a long time to go through them all thoroughly. Focus on getting through the most likely scenarios first so your team is more likely to be prepared for something that happens.
- Do a physical test of one or more critical emergencies.
A physical test, or drill, allows for more crisis training, as team members will be role-playing and acting as if the crisis is happening — practice really does make perfect when it comes to emergency situations and crisis thinking.
Include all communication methods and physical systems in this test, to make sure everyone knows how to use vital tools when needed. Inform staff about the test and what their role is during the test.
When testing during normal work hours, you can keep testing confined to a small group or location as needed to protect vital services. If you need to coordinate across multiple locations, you might consider running a larger test after hours to ensure that systems and processes work across remote locations.
September is FEMA’s annual National Preparedness Month and it is a great time to educate your stakeholders, get them invested in your emergency procedures, and bring them together to build or strengthen your emergency communication strategy especially if you need to get the public involved — but choose a time that works best for your team.
Follow up after Your Test
Here are some questions to ask after your physical tests and drills:
- Did we follow the plan?
- If not, why did we deviate? Was it a failure in following procedure, or do we need to alter procedure?
- Were enough team members trained to provide physical and emotional support (e.g., enough CPR-certified staff in each location, enough trained staff people in each location with notification activation permissions and ready to respond, and enough IT support)?
- Did our physical resources meet our needs (e.g., emergency and first aid kits, IT backups, preformatted closure signs, communication infrastructure)?
- Do we need further training from any of our system vendors, management, or local emergency responders to optimize and align emergency procedures with our tools and resources?
- How often should we conduct tests, and how many staff members should we include? For example, schools and financial institutions encourage all staff members to participate in periodic simulations.
Conduct Periodic Reviews
After you’ve completed your full emergency communication plan, continue to keep the document alive.
As you add new tools and systems, you will need to revise your plan. New locations, new stakeholder groups, and new regulatory requirements will also necessitate revision.
Set a time period during which you’ll review your emergency plan, re-test if needed, and disseminate revisions. This time period may be covered by an industry regulation or best practice. If not, consider doing a full review annually.
The goal of an emergency communication plan is to provide solid guidelines and ongoing practice to ensure that staff is able to confidently respond during a crisis. The steps outlined here will help you make sure your team is ready.
Learn how Syn-Apps can help your organization strengthen your emergency communication strategy. Watch the video to learn more!
Emergency Planning Resources
- Syn-Apps LLC:
- FEMA Emergency Response Plan Guidelines:
- NFPA Codes & Standards:
- OSHA’s Appropriate Test Standards (useful for planning a physical crisis test):
- OSHA’s Emergency Preparedness and Response resources:
- FCC Emergency Communications Information for Consumers (good resource about publicly available alerts):
- NWS Email and SMA Weather Alert Services (resource listing weather alerts):
- Emergency Preparedness Resources for Persons with Disabilities (resources you may need to be in compliance with ADA requirements and provide good service to stakeholders with disabilities):