January 2009, Vol. 21, No.1

Safety Corner

Effective Emergency Communications in Natural and Human-Generated Disasters

Thomas D. Rockaway, David M. Simpson, and Joshua Rivard


Recent events, such as Hurricane Katrina, the World Trade Center attack, and the 2003 power outage in the U.S. Northeast, demonstrate the need for improved systems of communicating emergency information to the public and other agencies. During these events, it was evident that many of the communication messages were poorly constructed, confusing, or erroneous. To “prevent ineffective, fear-driven, and potentially damaging public responses to a serious crisis” — a goal established in Communicating in a Crisis: Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials, a primer published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — it is essential to have sound and thoughtful communications.

To help facilitate effective communication, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.) funded a project (No. 03-CTS-5SCO) to create a toolkit to help water and wastewater utilities communicate more effectively with the public and other agencies during a crisis event. This toolkit includes a Communications Preparedness Guide to assist with emergency communications planning; decision-making guides and researched sample messages; and a software tool to help organize and maintain emergency communication information.

This software tool, the Emergency Communications Information Management System (eCIMs), provides utility professionals with an unprecedented ability to easily build, manage, and share customized emergency communications plans. The eCIMs tool is designed to be expandable to include any anticipated communication event and can be customized to accommodate the needs of large and small utilities in both the water and wastewater sectors.

Project Objectives and Focus
Prior to a crisis event, many water and wastewater utilities devote much time and effort to developing emergency response plans. While these documents typically contain sections on communications, many simply list contact information. Therefore, many emergency messages are conceived and created in the chaotic and hectic atmosphere associated with an emergency. Messages created under these conditions are much less likely to provide information in a clear and understandable format. Because providing reliable and concise emergency communications to the public is critically important, these messages should be well-considered, designed in advance, and organized.

Emergency management is a broad issue that encompasses not only public communications but policies, internal practices, and the protection of critical infrastructure. This project, however, focused only on the specific subset issue of emergency communications. The project addressed the need for water and wastewater utilities to prepare for adverse events and communicate effectively in emergency situations. To accomplish these goals, the project was organized according to the following objectives:

  • Determine the best emergency communications practices through literature reviews, national surveys, and case study interviews. The project team focused on optimal processes and systems for situational analysis, message creation, and information dissemination.
  • Evaluate emergency communication messages.
  • Develop a Communications Preparedness Guide consisting of a step-by-step process for utilities to use in developing their emergency communications plans.
  • Create an eCIMs software toolkit that combines the Communications Preparedness Guide, decision-making guides, and researched sample messages for three likely events and a software tool to help organize and maintain emergency communication information.

Communications Preparedness Guide and eCIMs
Researchers used the results of the literature review, national survey, case study interviews, focus groups, and message evaluation process to create the Communications Preparedness Guide and the eCIMs software. Together, these tools assist the utility professional in preparing to communicate effectively under crisis conditions.

For a water resource utility to manage emergency events effectively, communication structure and assignments must be in place before a crisis strikes. The guide, which is based on best management practices, helps users build, manage, and share customizable emergency communication plans. The researchers developed the guide based on the communication sections of selected emergency operating plans, surveys, case study results, and a literature review. The guide details strategies utility companies can use to manage emergency communications with the public effectively and includes relevant examples.

The eCIMs toolkit software provides water and wastewater utilities with a guide to assist with the effective management of emergency communications and related information. The purpose of eCIMs is to supplement existing emergency operation plans and provide a convenient method for storing and managing emergency communications information. For maximum utility, a downloadable print version of a utility’s collected information is made available upon completion of the eCIMs toolkit. The print version is useful to companies whose power has failed or in instances where more advanced technology is not available or accessible to manage the communications information.

Use of the Planning Tools
The intent of the Communications Preparedness Guide and eCIMs software is to provide a toolkit that assists utility personnel with managing their emergency communication messages. Once completed by the utility, the Communications Preparedness Guide can be a supplement to an existing emergency operation plan and provide an effective way to anticipate, store, and maintain pertinent information. The eCIMs software can be loaded onto a personal computer for customizing. It is hoped that many utility professionals will use these two tools and develop a common foundation for communications and streamline the manner in which they share their experiences.

The report detailing the guide and software toolkit is available through the WERF Web site at www.werf.org. The report and tools are free to WERF subscribers and priced at $175 for nonsubscribers.

Thomas D. Rockaway is an assistant professor and director of the Center for Infrastructure Research, David M. Simpson is the director of the Center for Hazards Research and Policy Development, and Joshua Rivard is a research coordinator at the Center for Infrastructure Research at the University of Louisville (Ky.).

©2009 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.