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Tech in the time of Outbreak: How to keep communities calm with clear crisis communications

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How can governments, agencies, local councils and private organizations get the word out in times of crisis? Properly designed crisis communications programs can help.

By Sanjay Saini

If you have ever seen the mid-90’s movie ‘Outbreak,’ you can understand how a fictional virus in a fictional town can quickly impact citizens and every organization responsible for keeping people safe. This is not just a Hollywood story. It is our reality – and the reality is that to be safe, nations must be over-prepared when it comes to health scares.

Getting the word out in times of crisis

In recent history, the mosquito-born Zika virus reached epidemic status from 2007 onwards, requiring international and local emergency co-ordination among public health and disease control experts to help contain the disease. This work is ongoing to this day.

Although not remotely on the same scale, the recent measles outbreak in New York City has led to the declaration of a public health emergency by Mayor Bill de Blasio. As patient numbers continue to climb it is clear the severity of the situation is not understood, and the message is not getting through, so he has mandated that unvaccinated people living in Williamsburg and Brooklyn must receive the measles vaccine. If they do not comply, they face violations and possibly fines of $1,000.

When a lack of information, misinformation or in other cases, mass panic, spreads as a result of a disease outbreak, the best way to manage people and emergency stakeholders is to ensure the right message is getting to the right people from a trusted source; at the right time. In any crisis, things can change in an instant – and faced with social media rumors, jammed phone networks and general confusion in an information vacuum – this can be a monumental challenge for public officials to manage.

So how can governments, agencies, local councils and private organizations get the word out in times of crisis? Properly designed crisis communications programs can help.

Addressing an outbreak with emergency response plans

Epidemics and pandemics represent a very different type of emergency challenge from disasters like floods, fires or terrorist attacks. In these situations, people must be moved away from danger as quickly as possible, and the active threat has to be contained inside a specific location.

Disease outbreaks require a different kind of response. Affected individuals need to be identified as quickly as possible, then isolated from the general population. Those not yet affected, such as those unvaccinated citizens living in New York, need to know when and where to go to get treatment and who to ask for further information – channeling the lines of enquiry.

If the right information can be distributed – it means small areas can be locked down or targeted with help, rather than large areas being evacuated unnecessarily, which can create huge disruption and economic impact. Also, networks of people who came in contact with carriers of a disease can be more easily located and contained. The tighter the geographic fences, the sooner the outbreak can be slowed down and contained.

The best laid plans often go awry

Outbreaks of disease require both a narrow geographic focus and a potentially national range of incidence management to help contain it, such as afflicted people travelling through airports. Emergency preparedness planning must understand these differences to be truly effective.

Crisis communications systems aimed at controlling epidemics must be interoperable across a wide range of networks, media and devices used by different agencies, first responders and health professionals. It is also critically important to get information back from the field, such as health staff working with afflicted patients or emergency staff handling a new outbreak. Alerting systems need to have two-way communication capability, making it easier to find out who needs help and simplifying the task of coordinating people who can assist. It should know who’s available and nearby and be able to contact them automatically. If team members are unavailable or someone doesn’t reply, it will automatically alert the appropriate people.

Another area where an epidemic control requires a different approach is in the dissemination of information to the public. Diseases and epidemics have the potential to spur fear at a visceral level. This can eat at the trust between people that helps unite the public’s response to disasters. It is important to alert citizens from a trusted source, and maintain regular updates. Again, the use of multi-modal technology to instantaneously send a message to a phone, laptop, loudspeaker, digital TV, social media or any other connected device is critical to reach the masses, rather than relying on one type of technology, like text messages.

Today, it’s the norm for people to use train or flight apps to be notified of delays, weather apps to prepare for a rain shower and, if a city had a crisis communications system in place, citizens could sign up for alerts and updates on emergencies. If this were the case, the city of New York would be able to pinpoint who was in an area of high infection during a certain window of time, and notify those citizens directly that they may have been exposed to measles and to go to certain hospitals for care.

Just as importantly, it must use authentication and encryption to secure all communication and comply with government security and privacy regulations. Careful control of information between responders and public health officials is essential. This content must be carefully secured, so that only fully-vetted and authorized communications from known, reliable resources are released to the media and public.

Addressing the unexpected and keeping people safe

The rules for emergency preparedness are being re-written, influenced by new regulation and next-generation technologies and a changing world of threats. The reality is that contagious disease outbreaks do happen, as do fires, floods, cyber-attacks and physical human threats. This recent epidemic in New York reminds us once again, how important it is to be able to react, inform, communicate and respond in real-time to contain an incident or take rapid action that will save lives.

Governments and private organizations must be ready for any eventuality. To help them, crisis communications software is designed to address the very complicated tasks required to address the unexpected – such as sudden disease outbreaks. As well as keeping citizens informed, it addresses the urgent need to get up-to-date information to government departments, hospitals and other agencies with a duty of care at a local, regional, national, and international level.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that in times of crisis, the best way to manage people and emergency stakeholders is to ensure the right message is getting to the right people from a trusted source; at the right time. Ultimately, I hope cities around the world should use the recent measles outbreak in NYC as wake up call, take a hard look at the systems and processes they have in place. Sending messages out on Twitter or relying on the local news is no longer an acceptable way of communicating with citizens – especially when the health and safety of people are at stake.

The author is SVP and GM of AtHoc at BlackBerry.

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