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Better Emergency Communication Pathways

At Findlay, we’re in the last steps of preparing for an active shooter drill for a large US appliance manufacturer. Our team will be working with the plant’s security managers, state and local law enforcement, fire services, EMS, and others to stage a mass evacuation as would happen in the event of a person using a firearm at the factory. This is full-scale simulation: The drill will take place on a workday, with hundreds of employees in the plant.

As we get ready for this exercise, we look very carefully at how the local community would be alerted if an emergency of this scale ever happened.

Obviously, in an active shooter scenario, the public has to be warned to stay away from the crisis zone.

Once the story breaks, family members of the company’s employees will be desperate to get updates, and certain parts of the response teams will also depend on public communication to be sure they are in the right place at the right time.

Traditionally, information about an ongoing crisis of this kind would come from a Public Information Officer and a company representative appearing before the media, in a press conference style setting. The advent and growth of the Internet changed this drastically, and much urgent information in crises is now disseminated via websites, social media platforms, and text message lists, in addition to press briefings.

Even with the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter, however, depending on social media and other app-based messaging as the chief means to update the public may not be the best strategy. A recent article at govtech.compoints out that each time that emergency managers initiate an update for the public, the effort might take as long as an hour and twenty minutes to complete. Getting a new message to the media, then posting to a website, and following that with social media and email or text alerts – all with proper gatekeeping – could indeed take some time. Synchronous delivery, careful coordination, and practice can certainly improve the time predicted by the article. Regardless, the recommended alternative is one that all local emergency managers, as well as EHS and security heads, should know: a mass notification system that works with a Federal Emergency Management Agency communication conduit known as IPAWS.

IPAWS stands for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, and as the govtech.com piece says, it provides “the distribution of messages to national emergency communication channels, such as the emergency alert system (EAS), weather radios, and the wireless emergency alert (EAS) system. Through the use of these non-subscription based channels, public safety officers can reach travelers and other non-citizens who may be in danger.” Think of IPAWS as a one-step messaging platform that forwards your alert to government-authenticated means of reaching the public. These include the Emergency Alert System, which puts the message on radio and television (as it would for a tornado or other natural disaster), and the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which broadcasts messages to cell phones. Internet pathways are also included.

IPAWS is the same system that the Federal government would employ to notify the country of a national disaster. But it also can be used by a local authority to geo-target a particular area when a regional crisis occurs. To take advantage of IPAWS, local officials must apply for access and train to use it. Corporate EHS and security managers can insert information about an emergency that originates at their facility into IPAWS only through that local authority.

Certain businesses allow for the idea that their manufacturing processes represent a greater potential danger to their neighbors and community. A petroleum refinery, for example, does present a greater risk to its area than, say, a furniture manufacturing plant. That’s why refineries will have a very comprehensive emergency plan, including public information. But history tells us that both the energy company and the furniture maker could suffer from an active shooter event. And should that dire circumstance happen, they both need to advise the community about the situation. All best means should be used in that case, and that includes knowing who is connected to IPAWS and being ready to work with that person or team.

Findlay All Hazards teaches companies of all kinds how to respond to an active shooter emergency across all facets. Prevention, evacuation, communication, and all else.

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