the 5 most important things I learned about comms in an emergency

There's been a fire, explosion, crash or terror incident. As the public demands information it's the public sector comms team who steps forward with a role to warn and inform. One former head of comms who specialised in emergency comms has looked back at what he learned.

by Ben Proctor

I don’t know why my careers teacher at school never told me about emergency planning but I didn’t really know it was a thing until I went to work for South Herefordshire District Council in 1996. There I discovered the Emergency Peacetime Duty Officer rota and began to get an insight into what local public services do to look after people in an emergency.

Since then I have worked in and out of local government, usually in comms or digital roles and I have always maintained a particular interest in emergencies.

I don’t feel old but I now recognise that my experience in this field stretches back nearly 20 years. So what have I learned?

 1. It is never too soon to pick up the phone.

Effective communications is a fundamental part of emergency response and I have yet to see the after action review that says “We involved the communications team too early.” On the other hand I’ve lost count of the number of reviews that say: “We didn’t get messages out quickly enough”. If you work in comms and you think something’s going on. Get in touch. Don’t wait to be asked.

2. Emergency communications is a team sport

There’s a lot of jargon in emergency planning and response: LRF, CCA, JESIP, IEM pour out of the mouths of emergency planning professionals. All of those bits of jargon refer to ways of getting multiple agencies to work together effectively. Emergencies are always dealt with by several organisations, often lots and lots of organisations. This means that suddenly your team expands from the people sitting around you to a much wider group many of whom you may not know that way.

When this works well (and I have seen it work brilliantly) those people form themselves into a team. They respect each other, they listen to each other and they talk to each other. A lot.

3. Planning is good, training is better

I like a good emergency plan. I like a good emergency comms plan. One of the things I like most about a plan that’s going to be useful in emergencies is that it is very short, very direct and full of useful checklists. There isn’t a lot of filler in an emergency plan.

But an emergency plan is only useful in an emergency to someone who already has a pretty good idea of what they are doing. It will remind them of the specific arrangements for this sort of emergency. It will prompt them to take actions which have been thought to be useful. But it can’t substitute for knowing how to work effectively in emergency situations.

Anyone with a comms role in emergencies should be properly trained. And they should be familiar with the plans they are likely to be using. But the training comes first.

4. Training is not complete until it has been exercised

Not everybody is comfortable in emergency situations. Making decisions that will have real impact on people’s lives in fast moving situations based on incomplete and often contradictory data isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s a skill though, something you can develop with training and practice. Emergency exercises are spaces that allow you to practice your skills. Embrace them.

And let’s not talk about “training exercises” please. Plan, train, exercise review, that’s the cycle.

5. Take a step back every eight hours

It is easy to fall into familiar patterns, especially in emergencies.

Get the update of closed roads to the media. Send it out on Twitter, respond to the Facebook comments and repeat.

That’s all well and good but are you helping the right people?

Every eight hours take a step back from the immediate tasks and ask yourself: 

  • Who needs to know stuff?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Which of them am I missing?

It will probably be the most valuable five minutes you’ve spent.

Ben Proctor is a former local government head of communications who is now director of the likeaword consultancy.