Emergency managers (and others) often fail to truly engage and educate their various stakeholders. With numerous competing priorities and a vast array of information outlets to contend with, getting a message to resonate requires more effort than ever before. As such, emergency managers must be willing to over-communicate and explore new ways to educate people. Much like disaster preparedness, communication is an ongoing process that requires a sustained commitment.
As a discipline, emergency management has matured greatly over the past several years. It has evolved from a civil defense mindset focused on a potential nuclear attack to a much broader all hazards approach involving “whole community” stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. With this evolution has come a myriad of doctrine and concepts. For example, the National Incident Management System and associated Incident Command System provide a standardized approach to managing disasters and integrating the response efforts of all levels of government and other whole community partners. Yet, despite the doctrine and associated training, many jurisdictions and organizations still fail to adhere to or apply the concepts effectively. One reason for this is a lack of effective communication and education.
Identifying Current Efforts & Gaps
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others have spent a great deal of time developing the National Planning Frameworks and other guidance, and there is a great deal of associated training available. However, FEMA, state emergency management agencies, and other emergency management organizations need to place a greater emphasis on communicating the practical application of the various concepts. Simply pushing out the plans and relying on webinars to explain them is not enough; and, yes, training is available but much of it is web-based and not truly interactive or educational.It is incumbent on all emergency management professionals to make a more concerted effort to help educate the various stakeholders and better communicate how and why the emergency management principles are applied. Additionally, more needs to be done to educate elected leaders because they too need to understand the emergency management process. Otherwise, when disasters happen, they may lose faith in the system and look past emergency managers for answers. When it comes to engaging elected officials, emergency management professionals must be willing to adapt to them, and this may include developing specific training for executives, one-on-one meetings/briefings, or other more tailored solutions. It is simply unrealistic to expect elected officials to have the time to read and digest reams of paper or to sit through hours of training and associated PowerPoint slides. Different audiences require different approaches, and this is especially true when trying to engage elected officials.
Solving the Under-Communication Problem
The emergency management community must over-communicate and constantly seek new and innovative ways to educate the various stakeholders. Although this may sound easy, there will inevitably be numerous competing priorities and many distractions to contend with, and it can be a challenge to get people’s attention absent a crisis. One strategy is to use someone else’s crisis as a learning opportunity for others. Nobody wants to be caught off guard when something bad happens, so real-world events can be opportunities to help educate others on how to potentially avoid or at least prepare for similar situations. Emergency managers must also do a better job of packaging information and avoid relying on dense, three-ring binders full of materials that nobody has the time to read. Checklists, job action sheets, executive briefings, and other tools should be considered to help elected leaders and others with busy schedules to better digest and understand the various plans, policies, and procedures. Collaborative workshops, exercises, and other simulations are critical to help operationalize the key concepts as well.
Researchers have noted that it takes multiple communications before people truly understand a message, and the marketing “Rule of 7” states that people need to hear a message seven times before they are likely to take any action (hence the reason that same car commercial seems to play every 10 minutes). This notion can be applied to emergency management education as well; therefore, repetition and constant contact are strategies to consider when explaining important information. Emergency managers must look for ways and opportunities to reinforce the message and always be willing to engage. When it comes to educating people about emergency management, it is impossible to over-communicate.
Terry Hastings is the senior policy advisor for the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) and an adjunct professor for the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany. He oversees the DHSES policy and program development unit and a variety of statewide programs and initiatives.