Emergency Communications: It’s the message, stupid!
For communicators, every emergency, whether it is a relatively minor car accident or medical emergency to the largest catastrophe have the same fundamental challenge. This fundamental challenge exists regardless of what part of the emergency puzzle they happen to represent. Whether you’re talking about local, state, federal responders, the military, critical infrastructure operators, non-governmental organizations, the communicators who support those operations have the same problem:
How to get the right information in the right time in the right format on the right device to the right person.
Or, as I like to call it … the “5 Rights” of Emergency Communications. The word “right” in that admittedly awkward sentence above is key. If any of those rights is wrong, we fail as communicators.
Digging into this a bit further…
Right Information: Information is the “message” – is it correct, true and descriptive to the point where it paints the picture in the recipient that the sender intended.
Right Time: On December 7th 1941, the United States intercepted a written message from Japan threatening imminent war. Unfortunately, the resulting alert never made it to General Walter Short or Admiral Husband Kimmel until hours after the Japanese attack had already decimated the United States Navy at anchor and island defenses. Clearly, a message that arrives too late (or occasionally too early) cannot influence actions on the ground.
Right Format: Look at the world of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to appreciate the challenges of formatting. Many government and enterprise organizations use ESRI for GIS. The volunteer technical communities often use OpenStreetMaps or Google Earth. What happens on an incident that has multiple actors trying to sort through a torrent of incompatible GIS standards? You can only guess… And that’s just one example! Protocols matter, at every level.
Right Device: There are an increasingly large array of devices used for emergency communications – radios, computers, phones, tablets … and whatever else may come tomorrow. Was the message simply sent to the wrong device? A device that was turned off? A radio on the wrong channel?
Right Person: If, after navigating the myriad of ways an technical ways an errant message can get lost in the ether, it’s still got to make it to, and be understood by a person who can do something with that message.
As as techie, find myself drawn into what are essentially meaningless discussions about preferred technology. Should I send a message via Twitter or by Ham Radio? Email or Skype? In reality, instead of thinking of myself as a “networking guy” or a “radio guy” and getting lost in the wilderness, we should focus on the fact that the medium is NOT the same thing as the message. The medium for communications should always be whatever best communicates that message. In the end, we should be technology agnostic, and equally adept with multiple modes of communication. Nature abhors a vacuum just slightly more than disaster abhors a one-trick-pony.