from the outset, or you can let others take
over. It all depends on planning.
The following are five critical steps you
should be thinking about now in order to
better ensure successful communication
during a disaster.
1. Have an emergency communication plan in
place. When the White House Utility District
in Tennessee learned that a cargo train had
derailed and hit the chemical storage facility
at its water treatment plant near a large residential
development, they were glad to have
a comprehensive plan in place that assigned
roles, listed media contacts, had a protocol for
contacting concerned family members and a
checklist for staffing and equipping an off-site
media center. Reaction was and needed to be
immediate, and the utility was prepared. They
simply could not have provided that level
of organized response absent the planning
effort they conducted months beforehand.
2. Identify and prepare adequate staff for implementation.
Don’t underestimate the communication
responsibilities that will arise during
an emergency. One person cannot do it all.
You’ll need to prepare statements for public
release; you’ll need to assemble maps, schematics
and other visuals to help describe the
situation; you’ll need to contact customers or
community leaders for briefings, you might
need to set up press conferences and prepare
spokespersons; and you might need additional
people at the scene of the incident to
Know where to turn within your organization
or where to get support outside your
utility long before the emergency occurs.
Most utilities won’t have a department filled
with communication specialists ready to
carry out essential tasks. But you probably
have very competent people in other areas
of your organization who can help if properly
trained and prepared. Make them part
of the planning process and ensure they are
prepared to carry out their responsibilities.
3. Have processes and procedures solidified.
You can’t assume anything. You can’t assume
your field personnel will know what to do
when a camera crew comes on site. You can’t
assume someone knows how to post emergency
updates on your website. You can’t
assume your board or elected officials understand
what their role might be. And you
cannot assume someone knows WHEN to
activate the emergency communication plan.
Before an emergency occurs, prepare communication
guidelines for all staff and especially
employees, contractors and consultants
who are in the field and are likely to be the
first point of contact for customers and community
members. It’s particularly important
for them to know where to direct questions
and inquiries. Meet with elected officials,
your board members, or other agencies
NOW to share your plans and protocols and
discuss ways to work together. Many emergencies
will involve multiple agencies, and
while we’ve come a long way in setting up
protocols for joint events, there is still room
for improvement, and that improvement
won’t come during the chaos of a disaster.
Make sure someone OWNS your emergency
communication plan and has developed
steps for its activation. Share these
steps widely throughout your utility.
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