Every family and even community living in a disaster prone area should prepare a sound and clear emergency communications plan. It is of vital importance that you train among each other and make sure that everyone understands the steps completely. This is especially true for children, since they are prone to forget what doesn’t interest them personally. Otherwise, they should understand the importance of your training sessions and why you, as a family, have to do this.
Optionally, you can try to turn it slightly into a game, but you still have to point out that, in a real emergency situation it won’t be as fun as during the training. The idea is to engage all members of the family, have them all understand the importance of your emergency communications plan and yet, not be stressed during the training.
The principle behind the acronym COMMUNICATE
This acronym is popular among preppers (and crafted by ready.gov) and they use it to easily remember some of the most crucial points of an emergency communication plan.
- Create the family plan and stick to it. Spread among all family members emergency phone numbers, including the personal phone numbers of each family member. Give information to meeting locations.
- Options: you can use various items to establish communication. From the cell phone, to stationary phones and emails as well.
- Make sure to get acquainted with your child’s school emergency plan
- Make a plan on where to meet if you can’t get to your home, in case of a disaster/emergency
- Understand – it takes time to get through to all your family members. It requires patience. Don’t panic.
- Needs – your pets also must be considered, including their needs. Take a cage if you have a cat. Don’t leave them behind.
- Information – You need to stay informed at all times. Get an emergency radio, watch the news, read online, etc. In severe cases, only the battery-operated radio will be of help.
- Copy the plans, and keep them in a place which you can access within seconds. This is especially important during emergencies, when you need to leave quickly.
- Ask your children and partner how they feel, both about the situation and the emergency plan. Discuss the plan together. Make sure the kids understand it.
- Take your children and spouse to see the meeting locations and spots. Go there together now and then in order to remember the directions. They need to get through to them without much of a thought.
- Emergency – Talk about the different levels and severity of emergency situations. Talk about the dangers of each emergency type, and how that will affect your plan.
This was a simplified overview offered by the government so that you remember the most important aspects of the emergency communications plan.
When talking about the emergency communications plan, we need to point out the purposes of this plan. These are three simple purposes:
- To initiate the plan, or change some step of its execution
- To initiate/inform the beginning a stage/phase of the plan
- To inform of your status/requirements, also known as situation report (SITREP)
It can be said straightaway that if you need to communicate for some other reason or purpose, this means that your plan has actually failed. An emergency communications plan shouldn’t be about anything but the beginning, phases, ending of the plan, and regular reports. No other reason should be implemented in your plan, otherwise you’ll clutter it with unimportant information, and your plan will become hard to remember. Of course, this shouldn’t discourage you. No plan is bullet-proof or devoid of mistakes. Be prepared to adapt the plan according to the situation.
There are five objectives your plan must meet. Your plan should be Complete, Clear and Concise, Unambiguous and finally Confirmed. While these concepts are easy to understand we need to focus for a while on explaining the details.
Your message must be clear. This means two things – the recipient must be able to hear you clearly, and also understand you immediately. This may prove a bit hard if you use a walkie-talkie or a cell phone is bad reception. This is why your message may also have to be very short, and send only the most vital information. Grammar doesn’t matter during emergencies, so don’t worry about that.
The message should of course be complete. This depends on the situation, but if for example, you need to meet someone at a given location (where), don’t assume they know when this meeting will occur. Give them the full picture. You may also want to know why they need to meet you – do they need something, are they in trouble, are they hurt, etc?
Unambiguous messages are also by default clear and concise. Yet, many people tend to believe that if they tell you the location, they know exactly which part of the location. They assume you know about ‘the circle spot’ at your location, but what if there are 4 circles? Make sure you relay the message as clearly as possible without any hint of ambiguity. The recipient should be able to find you with almost no additional clarifying calls.
Concise messages may turn ambiguous. It’s a pure art to make the message concise, clear and unambiguous. This is why training and dry-practicing your emergency communications plan is so crucial. Keep in mind which places could be used for meeting locations, and come up with the clearest message you can, and stick to it. Come up with it in a calm and relaxed situation. The brain doesn’t necessarily work at optimal levels while you’re in danger and possibly panicked.
And of course, the message must be confirmed by the other side of the reception. You need to establish messages or send signals somehow to indicate that the other person on the phone has successfully relayed the message, and you understood and received it. So, confirm that. Optionally, you could shortly rephrase the message, and share what you understood of it, so there’s no risk for miscommunication.
The meeting location
After we’ve established what a successful communication is, we need to proceed further to the more precise stages of planning.
Since disasters sometimes strike quite unexpectedly, or the time from the alert/warning issued to the actual disaster strike may be too short for your family to gather at home, you need to establish locations where to meet, depending on where you are at that particular moment. We advise you to pick two different locations: one in your neighborhood, and another outside of it.
In the first situation, you assume you are all together at home, and as the disaster strikes, you must gather together at a specific location at home. This can be anything – the basement, porch, or any location which will not endanger you all further. The porch isn’t a good idea during a tornado, while the basement isn’t good during earthquakes. Choose the spot carefully.
The second location should be picked in case neither of you can meet at home within reasonable time limits. The kids are at school, you’re at work or driving, etc. The location you choose should be as safe as possible, and should be familiar to all of you. If it’s not, go there several times, all together, to get used to reaching this location.
Finally, you must be aware that if one or more members of your family can’t get home, you must appoint someone (a relative or very close friend) to look after your pets (if you have any). This person may have to get to the kids (if it’s you who can’t meet at the appointed location), or care for someone who is left at home (e.g. an elderly person), etc.
The actual communication method
Usually, a cell phone will get you through the people you need to quickly contact. Even during disaster events when the lines get jammed, you can still get through to a person outside the emergency area/state.
This means you must have at least two additional contacts – one inside the affected area (a spouse, a relative, or a close friend), and one contact who is outside the area. If you can’t get to the first contact, you can almost always get through to the other person. Usually long distance calls will go through the jam.
Also, if you need to urgently contact your own family members, you don’t have to try and call them. First of all, you may not even be able to because the lines will be jammed. The best and most recommended method is texting. This is because text messages require less bandwidth to get to the intended person.
As we already advised, prepare a contact sheet (you can find such sheets on FEMA’s website) where you should write all contacts related to you. It should include phone contacts of your family members, parents, guardians, general practitioners, dentists, pharmacists, etc., including national and local emergency phone numbers. This sheet of paper must be copied to all your family members, or let them memorize the numbers. For small children and elderly with memory issues, the printed copy should be always with them.
In addition to the printed copies, insert all of these contacts in all members’ cell phones. Place one copy next to the stationary phone, at home.
The communication plan
Here is the essence and core of the topic, and it is related to how exactly you are to implement all your communication ideas and execute them as best as possible.
First of all, you need to consider the possible events and reactions during a specific disaster situation. For example, if you need to call your spouse in order to meet to your location, but are not getting a response, you may get worried. While on the other side, your spouse, let’s assume, doesn’t hear the phone calling because it’s in her backpack. This is a possible scenario, and you need to go through all options which may cause your plan to fail.
So, plan accordingly all steps. The above example shows that you didn’t think of the Confirm stage of your plan. You never managed to relay the message in the first place.
Here are the aspects of your plan which you must consider:
- Who calls and requests a meeting;
- What’s the purpose of the call (do you need to bring something?);
- Must you accomplish something before the meeting;
- What’s the location spot (both general and specific);
- The time you’ll arrive at the location;
- What will you do if this meeting fails (or something changes)?
If you consider these steps very well, and plan your communication using this plan, you have a very high chance of succeeding in reaching all family members, and eventually meeting at the desired location.
Types of communication
Another aspect of your plan is to establish how to designate the (if any) additional phases of your plan. You could for example relay a message that the person to meet you will see a broken bus at the corner of Street A. If they do, they are at the right stage and can move on. If they don’t see it, they must go back some, until they find the broken bus. This type of communication is called impersonal.
Personal communication is when you talk directly to the person and you are physically at the same location. You can touch the person. Talking on Skype isn’t personal, but telecommunication. Any of these types of communication must be somehow integrated and talked-through within your plan.
After all, cell phones aren’t always a 100% reliable medium, so you need to somehow try to get to one another using other communication techniques and methods. Come up with these methods together, so that all of you approve and remember them. And don’t forget to always include the unfavorable outcome in which your message may not get through to the recipient(s).
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that you need several back-up plans for different stages of emergency. For example, your primary plan is Plan A. This could be getting in touch with everyone and communicating via cell phones. If this goes unhindered, then Plan A has proven enough. Usually Plan A should be considered the best plan. This is also the plan which has a higher chance of succeeding and relaying the message (and arranging the meeting).
And yet, there is some chance that Plan A may fail to be executed. For this unpleasant situation you must have a Plan B, or an alternate plan. This plan should be just as useful and applicable as the first. A good example would be to use a communication device, different from a cell phone – for example Skype, walkie talkie, communications radio, ham radio, etc.
The contingency plan is one that backs up the above two if they failed. For example, you lost your cell phone, or ham radio, and need to find another way to get to your other family members. So, decide a good way for relaying the messages in a different way, it could be personal or impersonal, but if you lost your cell phone, and this was your primary and alternate plan, then it can’t be telecommunication related.
Yet, you can get to, let’s say, an internet zone where you have access to a computer. You can send messages, but you must be sure the other end also has a computer to receive the message. You get the point.
Finally, the emergency plan if all others fail, shouldn’t require any communication at all. You all must know what to do, what place to get to, etc. if you can’t reach one another. This may mean that all of you will get to a certain place or special location. It must also be safe (in case there’s a tornado, flash flood, tsunami, etc) outside.
National emergency communication plan
Usually the state/country must ensure that it can safely relay emergency messages to its citizens. This often happens via emergency radios and other such media. For emergency radios seem to be the most widely used and relied on. Most such products can be charged in several different ways to ensure that you can receive messages/emergency news/alerts regularly, without or at least minimizing any blackouts.
You must make sure that all members of your family can have unhindered access to such a radio, or even give one to each family member. Some emergency radios have a two-way communications system – send and receive messages.
Finally, practise your plans, both primary and secondary. Turn it into something fun, but make sure your kids understand that once you need to do it for real, then it’s a serious matter.
As long as you’re well prepared, and you discussed together as many options as possible, you significantly minimize the risk for your family during a disaster. Don’t forget the contact sheet and give it out to everyone in your household, and keep in mind to have a long distance contact to act as an intermediary if you can’t get through to your family.