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Our Communication “Volume” Needs Fixed

One of the things I constantly hear in the Emergency Management world is, “the problem is communications.” I do not believe I have been involved in a discussion about what went wrong in an emergency where communications isn’t the first thing stated. Despite the influx of technology and increased learning in the field, it seems that this portion is always lacking. Why is this the case?

While I believe that there are a number of issues surrounding the lack of communication is an emergency, one of the biggest has to be the overall amount of information communicated, and our inability to process it all.

In day-to-day communications, the process is relatively simple. Person #1 conveys some bit of info to person #2.

In an emergency, the information process is not this easy. The info flowing to emergency managers could be from a variety of sources, at the same time. You will have information coming in from the community, emergency responders, the media, and other emergency management agencies. This inflow of information needs reviewed, assimilated, evaluated and prioritized in order to make timely and effective managerial response and recovery decisions.[1]

This process is untenable. It will result in an inconsistent message, and the possibility of lost lives and property. The reason that communication is constantly mentioned is that it is never resolved. In fact, the technology created to make our lives easier might actually be gumming up the process even more. I was at an emergency a few years ago and in addition to the ICS message forms, the IC was receiving texts, landline calls, emails, cellphone calls, and face-to-face messages.

An approach to emergency management that involves humans has limits. One cannot effectively absorb the amount of information that comes at them during an emergency. This is partially addressed via NIMS and the incident command system, but many of us have been utilizing this for some time, and we are still failing at communication. The most recent NIMS revision might be on to something though. It allows subject matter experts to be folded into ICS. Maybe the subject matter expert we need to add it someone whose role it is to receive all the messages and then organize them into some form of understandable form.

Communication is vital and even if we found a way to assimilate all the data coming in, I doubt that we have heard last frustrated emergency responder complain about the lack of communication. It might be though that we are able to solve one piece of it, and the complaints that come out, will allow us to focus on some new issue that arises, and not the same issues year after year.


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