Public Safety and Crisis Communication in an Emergency or Disaster
Crisis communication refers to sharing information with people and organizations during an emergency or disaster situation. Communication is essential for ensuring public safety and is effective when the right messages are delivered well, to the right individuals, at the right time. There are different considerations for crisis communication during the planning, response, and recovery phases.
Communication planning begins with considering what types of emergencies or disasters may occur within the community. It is important to educate community members about specific disasters that may impact the community. Informing community members about plans for addressing disasters and the steps they should take to protect themselves will result in a better-prepared community and may facilitate the response. At the planning stage, it is important to build trust and confidence between community members and the individuals or organizations who will deliver messages before, during, and after a disaster. This will help ensure communications are delivered effectively during a crisis event.
Develop a Crisis Communication Plan
An emergency will exacerbate communication needs and overburden systems meant for day-to-day communication. Rural communities should develop a crisis communication plan before an emergency or disaster to support response efforts. A crisis communication plan serves to:
- Save lives and reduce injury
- Protect property and the environment
- Facilitate response efforts
- Seek the public's cooperation
- Provide information to help families reunite
A crisis communication plan should cover internal communication processes to ensure clear lines of communication between health departments, first responders, federal agencies, and other partners and collaborators involved in the response. It should also address external communication processes to provide accurate and timely information necessary for public safety.
A crisis communication plan will vary community-to-community and include different specifications for different types of disasters. The plan should define the purpose, scope, and procedures for crisis communication, including the key people involved, and include targeted information based on previously identified community hazards.
A crisis communication plan may identify and describe the following:
- Disaster Identification – which disasters are most likely to occur in the community and how these might impact communication
- Barriers – challenges to communication during an emergency, including smaller issues, like not having enough handheld radios, or larger issues, like loss of communications infrastructure
- Populations at Increased Risk of Adverse Outcomes – communication needs of different populations, particularly those at increased risk of adverse outcomes, including protocols and tailored messages to ensure reach to these populations. For more information, see Population Considerations for Health Literacy Programs in the Rural Health Literacy Toolkit.
- Spokespeople and Messengers – these individuals may include trusted community leaders, emergency managers, or health department staff who deliver messages. Messengers should express empathy, use clear and simple language, have credibility in the community, and provide a course of action.
- Key Personnel – individuals familiar with the crisis communication plan and with a defined role in crisis communication
- Partnerships – partners may support communication by delivering messages and sharing communication strategies. The plan can include a directory, available to all partners, that describes each partner's affiliation and role.
- Alert and Notification Procedures – audiences, channels for delivering information, and timeframe for information to be delivered
- System Capacity – protocols for increasing communication capacity during an emergency or disaster, such as activating a hotline, website, or joint information center (JIC); assigning additional staff to communication efforts; or securing additional resources
- Message Templates – formatted to address likely disasters so that staff can quickly fill in specific details with the appropriate information
- Activation Criteria – a set of criteria that must be met for the crisis communication plan to be activated
Rural communities should practice implementing the crisis communication plan with key partners and collaborators and should test messages to ensure they are appropriate for the intended audience.
Test Communication Systems and Equipment
Rural communities should conduct routine tests of their emergency communication systems and equipment. These tests will ensure all systems are working correctly in case of an emergency or disaster. State authorities are required to conduct monthly tests of their state emergency alert system (EAS). FEMA conducts a nationwide EAS test at least once every three years. These tests push alerts to television and AM and FM radio.
Effective communication during a response is crucial. Communication will occur between partners and organizations involved, with the public, and with the media and other stakeholders. Rural organizations should identify messages and delivery channels and understand the potential challenges and barriers in order to ensure messages are delivered and received effectively.
During a response, crisis communications must be accessible to the public both in terms of content and of delivery. Accessibility looks different to different people and populations. Communicators should consider population characteristics such as age, reading level, English language proficiency, disability status, functional needs, and cultural background. It is also important to consider which message formats and delivery channels work best for different populations in the community.
Strategies for ensuring accessible communications include:
- Translation and Interpretation – translating written materials, providing interpreter services for oral announcements in languages spoken by the community, and notifying populations with limited English proficiency that these services are free and available
- Digital Accessibility – ensuring that digital information, including websites, emails, PDFs, smartphone apps, and other communications, are accessible to people with disabilities. Accessible digital information and communication are required by law, through Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, for federal agencies, including their contractors and partners.
- Multimodal Communication – providing auxiliary aids to communication, such as Braille, sign language interpreters, and text telephones (TTYs)
- Partnerships – developing partnerships with nonprofit, community- and faith-based, and media organizations and community representatives that serve racial and ethnic populations and people with disabilities in order to support communication
- Pretesting Messages – pretesting messages before they are used and assessing message delivery and appropriateness
- Multiple Channels – using multiple delivery channels, such as social media, print, radio, or broadcast media, to increase reach to intended audiences
Message content will vary depending on the kind of emergency and message purpose. Content may include:
- Warnings and alerts, including accurate information about the disaster and threats to safety
- Information about protective actions such as evacuation, curfews, and quarantine
- Updates on response efforts
Organizations can develop “holding statements” that can be delivered immediately to acknowledge the emergency and provide time to develop crisis-specific messages. Crisis-specific messages may need to be adapted for different scenarios, audiences, delivery channels, and spokespeople.
Determine Delivery Channels
There are a variety of channels for delivering messages, and some may be appropriate only for certain audiences or situations. Delivery tools and methods commonly used in communication response include:
- In-person events, such as town halls and community meetings
- Media (newspapers, newsletters, broadcast)
- Websites and social media
- Emergency Notification Systems, to send mass alerts via text message, recorded voice message, or email
- Conference calls
- Call center
- Joint Information Center
- Word of mouth
- News conferences and briefings
- School message boards
- Ham radios
Rural communities can establish a Joint Information Center (JIC) for handling community information needs during a response. The JIC serves as a centralized location for coordinating and disseminating information to the public. The JIC can be a physical location, but most communication among JIC members will be virtual. The JIC should include representatives from every organization involved in the response. A JIC can be activated during a response and works well for both smaller and larger emergency events. The JIC can issue public information, alerts, warnings, and other notifications.
Barriers and Challenges
Some common barriers and challenges in communication response include:
- Stress – Emergencies are stressful situations, so it may be difficult for community members to listen, process, and act on certain pieces of information.
- Disruption – In a crisis or disaster, people may be displaced from their homes, separated from their cellphones and TVs, and be living in an entirely different routine. This can all impact how, when, and where community members receive information.
- Timeliness and Accuracy – Delivering timely and accurate messages is critical to ensuring public safety. Delays in delivering timely messages can result in the need to dispel misinformation.
- Technology Failures – A power or cell tower outage will limit communication. When technology failures occur, rural organizations must use other methods of communication that are appropriate for community members.
- Unified Messaging – All partners involved in communication should deliver unified, clear, and consistent messages. This will ensure that community members trust the information shared.
Understand and Engage the Media
Understanding and engaging the media are important to implementing a crisis communication plan during an emergency. There are many media platforms, such as print newspapers, news websites, radio, television, and social media, and each channel may reach different audiences. To reach the whole community, it is necessary to develop and maintain partnerships with various media outlets for communication and emergency response success. Media outlets have experience reaching large audiences in a short amount of time, so it is essential for partners to deliver accurate information to the media as quickly as possible. As much as possible, statements given to the media should include the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a disaster.
Interacting with the media can be daunting, especially when it is regarding a sensitive topic. For example, a hospital in rural New Hampshire faced a sensitive experience that required careful interaction with the media. Any information given to the media was drafted by a marketing agency and reviewed by a lawyer. This was a highly complicated situation that required these measures, but that will not always be the case. When providing information to the media, speak clearly, answer questions, and provide as much of the relevant and necessary information as possible. Some information cannot be shared for reasons such as privacy and legal concerns. Identify someone to serve as a spokesperson and ensure they are prepared for this role.
It is crucial to continue communication after a disaster subsides. The crisis communication plan should address what types of messages and communication will be required with partners, the public, and the media during the disaster recovery phase. After a disaster, it is also important to review and update the crisis communication plan to reflect lessons learned from real-world events.
Emergency Services – Chemical Spill in an Abandoned Building in North Carolina
To notify residents of a moving chemical cloud, responders used social media and the county's mass emergency notification system. The notification system automatically included residents with a landline, but those with only a cell phone were not alerted, unless they had signed up for alerts. To remedy this and to ensure all residents received future alerts, the county worked with the county communications center to conduct outreach and education to help all community members sign up for alerts.
Evaluate the Crisis Communication Plan
When evaluating a crisis communication plan, communities should involve the crisis communication team and partners, including first responders and the public. Participation will vary based on the type of emergency or disaster and the scope of the evaluation. Communities can begin by evaluating the timeliness, accuracy, effectiveness, and reach of communication. It is important to identify, document, and share lessons learned.
Update the Crisis Communication Plan
Based on the results of the formal review and evaluation, communities can implement changes to improve the crisis communication plan as needed. Any revisions and updates to the crisis communication plan must be shared with partners and stakeholders.
Luis Valley Health Regional Medical Center Equipment Impacted by Power Outage
This medical center learned the importance of having an updated contact list during response efforts to the power outage. While attempting to contact regional partners and the utility provider to restore power, the hospital realized that names and numbers on their contact list were not up to date.
Resources to Learn More
and Functional Needs Toolkit: Integrating a Community Partner Network to Inform Risk Communication
Provides guidance for emergency management officials, public health professionals, and others when developing messaging and communication strategies that reach entire communities. Focus is on individuals at risk during an emergency and who may need additional assistance due to access and functional needs.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Center for Preparedness and Response
and Emergency Risk Communication Plan
Describes the Arizona state process for disseminating information to the public, government agencies, and media during an emergency disaster or internal crisis. Helps public health staff and other departmental administrators partner with county, state, federal, and private sector organizations in risk communication activities.
Organization(s): Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS)
Provides planning resources, information, and tools to help rural healthcare facilities and organizations plan for communication efforts, including crisis communication.
Organization(s): University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health
CERC: Crisis Communication
Explains the objectives of communication during the different phases of an emergency to understand the needs of the public and the media and provides a guide to developing a crisis communication plan.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Communicating in a Crisis:
Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials
Outlines communication practices for public officials while in a crisis situation, focusing on the needs of the media and the public. Discusses communication basics: presenting complex, scientific, and technical information; understanding communication myths; using social media; correcting misinformation; presenting details in meetings; and identifying opportunities to respond to issues of concern.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Web-based communication training that includes information, strategies, and considerations for communicating effectively and with the whole community during an emergency.
Organization(s): Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
for Effectively Communicating with the Whole Community in Disasters
Offers a list of practices to guide state, local, and tribal jurisdictions in their efforts to develop effective, non-discriminatory communication during a disaster.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC)
A resource hub on crisis communication offering training, tools, and information for emergency responders, public health officials, and other stakeholders during emergencies.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Risk Communication in Rural Settings
Provides resources that rural communities can use for risk communication. Addresses specific emergencies and disasters, including natural, biological, chemical, and radiological events.
Organization(s): Southeast Health District