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Incident Response Communication Plan and NG9-1-1

Posted on Mon, Jul 22, 2013

The ability to swiftly and effectively communicate incident details and subsequent response actions is an important factor of effective incident management. The standard "phone tree" has evolved into a variety of dynamic communication modes used to interact with internal and external responders, and stakeholders. Most professionals have several phone numbers, multiple email addresses, and can receive SMS (text) messages and digital images.

Because of the vast availability of this technology, it is essential to pre-plan standardized methods and notification procedures that will allow companies to rapidly communicate. If a company uses more than one practice (i.e. e-mails, texts, or telephone calls) to reach responders and stakeholders, the chances are improved that the message will be received. Responders should identify, agree, and exercise a primary means of communication in order to respond readily. Communication mode consistency and training in response communication procedures can streamline anticipated methods and assure messages are received promptly.

Just as common communication methodology is important for communication, commonly understood terminology is essential. A multi-agency incident response requires simple and parallel language. Communicating through unfamiliar company radio codes, agency specific codes, perplexing acronyms, unanticipated text messages, or specialized jargon will disconnect and confuse employees, responders, and/or stakeholders, possibly prolonging a response.

According to FEMA, common ICS terminology helps to define:

  • Organizational Functions: Major functions and functional units with incident management responsibilities are named and defined.
  • Resource Descriptions: Major resources (personnel, facilities, and equipment/ supply items) are given common names and are "typed" or categorized by their capabilities. This helps to avoid confusion and enhances interoperability.
  • Incident Facilities: Common terminology is used to designate incident facilities.
  • Position Titles: ICS management or supervisory positions are referred to by titles, such as Officer, Chief, Director, Supervisor, or Leader.

But even with an effort to institute advanced technology into communication methods and streamline procedures with injected common terminology, not everyone on the emergency notification lists has access to various modes of communications. This is particularly true of the current 9-1-1 system. While there have been many improvements to the 9-1-1 system over its nearly 45 year history, (notably the ability to locate and route wireless callers), the call center infrastructure has remained fundamentally the same.

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), “The nation’s current 9-1-1 system is designed around outdated telephone technology and cannot handle the text, data, images, and video that are common in personal communications and critical to future safety and mobility advances.”  To combat this, the “Next Generation 9-1-1” (NG9-1-1) initiative calls to retrofit call center infrastructures in order for call centers or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to receive emergencies reports in a variety of digital means. RITA explains that the NG9-1-1 is a system comprised of hardware, software, data, and operational policies and procedures that will be able to:

  • Enable 9-1-1 calls from a variety of networked devices
  • Provide faster and more accurate information and delivery to responders. Delivery will incorporate better and more useful forms of information (e.g., real-time text, images, video, and other data).
  • Establish more flexible, secure, and robust PSAP operations with increased capabilities for sharing data and resources, and more efficient procedures and standards to improve emergency response.
  • Enable call access, transfer, backup, and improved interoperability among PSAPs and other authorized emergency entities.

President of the NENA Executive Board, Barbara Jaeger, ENP, told 9-1-1 Magazine that “it could be eight to ten years before full, seamless real-time text to 9-1-1 is available across states and the nation unless NG9-1-1 is prioritized and adequately funded”.  However, the initiative seems to be a priority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC stated that text to 911 would have nationwide availability by May 15, 2014. The FCC stresses that text to 911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services.

Durham, North Carolina’s emergency communication center is one of the first NG-9-1-1 systems in the US. The Durham center lays the groundwork for other call centers to accept text, images, and video once mobile carriers make this an available option to their customers. Ideally, the NG9-1-1 capability will be instrumental in providing law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs, and other first responders detailed, incident-specific information, possibly resulting in a more efficient response.

An FCC press release stated, “In addition, to help eliminate consumer confusion while text-to-911 capability is being phased-in, the carriers have committed to provide an automatic “bounce back” text message to notify consumers if their attempt to reach 911 via text message was unsuccessful because this service is not yet available in their area. Such a message would instruct the recipient to make a voice call to a 911 center. The four carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) will fully implement this “bounce back” capability across their networks by June 30, 2013.”

As NG9-1-1 implementation gains momentum, companies should evaluate notification and disclosure procedures in order to align corporate communication practices with advanced emergency communication strategies. As a result, timely notifications can be initiated and acted upon in the event an incident occurs at your facility.

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Tags: Emergency Management Program, Communication Plan, Media and Public Relations, Social Media, Emergency Action Plan, Notification Systems