On two instances in early March, AT&T users in several states were unable to call 911, the most common emergency contact number. According the Federal Communications Commissions’ Public Safety and Homeland Security acting Bureau Chief, Lisa Fowlkes, a preliminary investigation revealed that over 12,000 callers could not reach 911 operators during the outage. But this is not the first time a 911 outage has occurred. On April 9, 2014, a 911-call routing facility in Colorado stopped routing calls to eighty-one 911 centers. According to the 2014 FCC investigation, over 6,600 calls were never connected to emergency operators during that incident.
The 2014 FCC report revealed that the Colorado outage was not an isolated incident or an act of human nature. Ongoing upgrades to the 911 system have resulted in conflicts between newer and older software code. While the investigation continues into the March 2017 outage, it highlights the importance of alternate emergency contact information in emergency response plans.
With this most recent investigation, the FCC prompts the question; “What plans do public safety entities have in place for public notification during 911 outages, including the provision of alternative emergency contact information, and how effective were alternatives.” C-level executives, facility managers and EHS staff should be asking the same questions.
- What plans does your company have in place for public notification during 911 outages?
- Do your response plans include alternative emergency contact information?
- How effective are these alternatives in responding to your needs?
During the initial planning stage and consequential emergency planning reviews, facilities need to assess the impact of the potential emergencies, determine the need for backup or external resources, and confirm contact information. Companies must have adequate resources to effectively address emergency situations. It is critical to identify and include appropriate contact information and backup communication methods in response plans.
The execution of a solid communication plan should begin in the planning phase, not on the verge of, during, or in the aftermath of a disaster. All response plans should provide contact information to ensure the response team members, external resources, and stakeholders have the information needed to make educated decisions. Through pre-planning, a communication plan can be fully integrated into the overall response plan. Unfortunately, confirmation of internal and external communication tends to neglected. It is essential that contact numbers are routinely checked and updated in response plans.
Time is critical during an emergency. An effective response can be compromised if response plans contain wrong or out of service phone numbers. If using an automated call out system, important information may not be received if numbers or e-mails have changed. A scheduled verification system should be put in place to solidify the accuracy of any applicable means of communication (ex: e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers and landlines).
Communication pre-planning should also include, but is not limited to, the following:
- Notification and Activation methods: Meet with employees and responders to discuss notification and activation methods. Do not assume that responders identify with company communication policies or context of emergencies communications. Through communication, employees can comprehend the safety measures necessary to limit exposures and prevent unnecessary harm.
- Contact Verifications: Primary and secondary contact information should be verified for personnel, responsible agencies, and contracted responders. Verification should be conducted on a periodic basis in order to maintain accurate and applicable information.
- Strategic Considerations: Establish a strategic framework with checklists and response criteria that will guide the communications decision-making process to allow for an effective response.
- Stabilization: Effective communications is the bridge to stabilizing a crisis situation. The stabilization phase may include media/public relations. In this 24/7 information age, a communications plan should include informational jurisdiction decisions about what to release, by whom, and when. Information MUST be accurate and timely in order to diffuse rumors.
- Recovery: The lines of communications need to remain open to return to a “business as usual” level. In order for a full recovery, communication should include:
- Accurate damage assessment reports
- Response personnel reports
- Demobilization techniques
- Employee reentry procedures
- Lessons learned debriefings