Successfully preparing for severe weather events—like hurricanes—involves more than just sandbagging doors and securing windows. Hurricanes can cause significant damage, leaving people stranded and putting lives at risk. In these situations, good emergency communications and response plans are crucial for informing people how to keep themselves—and their families—safe.
In September 2018, Hurricane Florence barreled toward the Carolinas, promising 140 mph winds and 20–25 inches of rain. The hurricane motivated us at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to employ the best and most effective strategies and solutions to keep everyone safe and informed while maintaining critical campus operations.
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With 23,400 members of the campus community spread across six colleges and an 800-bed medical center located in a city below sea level, our team knew that giving everyone the information they needed to stay safe would be no small feat.
After the storm cleared and we had the chance to evaluate our strategy, we implemented our latest best practices from the storm into our standing emergency response plans. Here are some takeaways from our experience at MUSC to make emergency communications as effective as possible:
Have the correct team and tools in place
Having a well-practiced plan in place before a crisis hits is the backbone of emergency preparedness—and building a strong team and giving team members a reliable way to send targeted emergency communications in a crisis are critical factors of being able to execute that plan.
When establishing a team, set and manage expectations for everyone’s roles and for the communication plan upfront. At MUSC, we found the most efficient way to streamline the execution of critical and emergency communications was to involve only a small team in approving messages to be sent. When there are too many people involved, developing and sending exactly the right message can be a slow process—costing precious time in situations that demand timely updates.
The team that administers communications during an emergency must also represent all parts of the community at risk. For example, the MUSC crisis communication team consists of members from IT, legal, emergency management, media relations, internal communications, risk management, and information security. This wide representation helps to examine the plan from technological, legal, human resource, and risk standpoints. The diversity helps us avoid group think, guaranteeing all sides of the problem are evaluated and the practicality of the plan is discussed.
Teams must also pick a trusted, reliable method of communicating to all relevant people in the vicinity, from those who are on site every day to temporary visitors. MUSC, like many universities, has a diverse population, and our communications need to reach everyone: faculty, students, patients and visitors, not all of whom have email addresses in our system. We ended up choosing a mass notification system called Rave Alert due to its dependability and ability to reach all members of the campus community through channels like email, text, and social media.
Segment your audience to communicate more effectively
Communicating with such a diverse audience can be a challenging element of even the best emergency preparedness plans. Short attention spans can make it hard to keep everyone engaged, even during a potentially dangerous situation like a hurricane.
During Hurricane Florence, we found that splitting our audience into unique groups based on their role, location, or other set of attributes led to higher engagement, so more people got the information relevant to their safety. While we sent weather notifications to everyone, many messages were customized based on the recipients, segmenting our database into groups of individuals based on role. Students were sent messages assuring them of their safety and we kept them informed on updates relevant to the area where they lived. Meanwhile, on-site medical center staff were sent or directed to separate notifications about sleeping accommodations, complimentary meals, and off-duty activities such as movies and karaoke.
Ideally, a university, campus, or other organization wants to give people enough information without overwhelming them to the point of tuning the messages out, or without spoon-feeding people to the point that they forget to use their big, beautiful brains. We recognized this and put a plan in place to provide information at the enterprise level. It would then be segmented as appropriate in that enterprise-wide message with subheadings for easy reference during our storm communication cadence, while simultaneously encouraging leaders throughout the organization to break down large-scale messages as needed for specific audiences. By doing this, we were able to avoid alert fatigue and prevent campus safety managers from sending too many highly-specific or nuanced messages to the whole school.
Provide information from a reliable source
A message is more than its contents. Notifications need to communicate to recipients at first glance if a message is about something critical or commonplace. Design is just as important in signaling to recipients that the message is important and issued by a trusted source. When every message has the same look and feel, a distinct message will stand out and get more attention, making it more likely that the message will be read and heeded. You can use several easy design elements to communicate this, such as a subject line format, logo, or the email address the message originates from.
As an added step to enhance the reliability of our messages, we encouraged the MUSC community to register secondary email addresses on Rave Alert. Having this type of backup system in place ensured that community members still received updates, whether or not they were logged into a campus email.
Safety is a work in progress, especially when it comes to preparation for inclement weather. To continue this progress, crisis teams should always try to learn from past experiences. MUSC’s experience during Hurricane Florence reinforced for us how important it is to have a trusted team approach to help everyone ride out the storm safely, improve continuity and clarity of messaging, and meet the diverse needs of a complex organization. Equally important was that team’s ability to use a reliable and intuitive digital emergency communication solution to enact this protocol. With the right plan and technology in place, organizations can better protect the communities that rely on them every day.