Emergency communication centers face a range of situations and must meet high expectations for rapid response and public communication. Some governments already are meeting those challenges by adopting the following five best practices to improve emergency response communication with the public.

  1. Anticipate and pre-program content

    Although each emergency is different, many public messages about emergencies and responses can be created in advance. For example, New York's State Emergency Management Office (NYSEMO) has developed a mass-dissemination portal to alert the media and residents about emergencies, including missing persons, road closures, traffic issues and school safety. The NYSEMO system, called NY-Alert, sends voice, e-mail and SMS text messages to subscribers. The office has programmed messages, which include specific information about each emergency and are ready to send when needed.

  2. Spread caller demand among multiple locations using virtualization

    Spreading capacity to respond to questions across multiple agencies and facilities, including 311 call centers and automated systems, dramatically reduces peak load volumes in 911 centers. A single phone system can transfer calls over the Internet to multiple departments or agencies using Internet telephony and Internet Protocol technology.

  3. Overestimate capacity needs

    Err on the high side of expectations when estimating telephone capacity needs for emergencies. Many government agencies are turning to hosting providers, which oversubscribe capacity knowing that all customers will not need emergency communications at the same time. For example, NYSEMO tested the NY-Alert system with 24,000 telephone lines for two minutes, sending 2 million messages per second without any failures. The agency reported that its voice system could place up to 27,000 telephone calls within one minute. After that, the length of the message would determine capacity. The same system can send approximately 40,000 e-mail messages per minute. Adding more servers can expand that volume. An agency that plans and tests at similarly high levels is unlikely to be overwhelmed during an emergency.

  4. Incorporate multi-channel capabilities

    Five channels have emerged as the most important: e-mail, SMS text, voice self-service, live assisted service and automated outbound calls. If a city or county has an integrated multi-channel approach, residents can use any of those methods and receive consistent information and instruction.

  5. Leverage emerging resources

    Most agencies have not yet tapped the latest communication technologies — like text messaging, social networking, instant messaging and others. They are becoming critical channels to reaching the public as traditional media become less important in resident's lives. Local governments can use the technologies to coordinate resident evacuations, emergency responders, vendors and the health care community, depending on the emergency.

While many agencies are much better prepared than they were only a few years ago, the majority still need to develop their public communication skills. It is an ongoing process, but each bit of progress is critical to ensuring safer communities.

Bill Grabner Jr. is manager of Government Emergency Solutions for Daly City, Calif.-based Genesys Labs.