Recovery reports from Superstorm Sandy are heartbreaking. On Friday, as neighbors cleared properties that were battered by flooding on Staten Island, the bodies of two more storm victims were recovered in a home nearby. Like most who were spared the ravages of Sandy, my thoughts and prayers continue to be drawn to the thousands of people still suffering along the Atlantic Coast.

The recovery is revealing important learnings about emergency communications in the digital age. Major shifts in how people are accessing news and information means crisis plans need to be rethought.

Most public safety agencies and emergency planners have long advised citizens to tune to radio and television for the most current advisories before, during and after the storm. As with so many other things in the digital age, fewer and fewer people are turning there for news and information. An Adweek Data Points last month showed that while television is still the leading source of news for Americans, 39% of the people who were asked, “Where did you get the news yesterday?,” responded  desktop and mobile devices versus 33% for radio.

At Eric Mower + Associates, preparations for Sandy gave us the opportunity to test our new emergency communications system. During the past year, the agency completed a comprehensive update of the our emergency plan, including the creation of a new employee notification system called EMAlert.  We could no longer accept the risk that an emergency situation that cripples our information technology system could also cut off communications to our staff. We worked with a world-leading provider of interactive and mass notification systems to ensure that the agency can now quickly and easily reach EMA people wherever they are with email, text and traditional phone messages. With a secure, offsite technology partner, we have greater assurance that we can help ensure the safety of our people and continue business operations in almost any type of emergency. EMAlert worked exactly as intended in our tests on the day Sandy arrived in the Northeast.

As the recovery from Sandy continues, I see three major lessons for communications professionals who have responsibility for emergency planning:

  1. Update crisis plans to address the reliance on mobile communications. Based on the size and scope of your organization, establish the right approaches (with built-in redundancies) to get messages to key stakeholders on mobile devices. For EMA, it’s a third-party mass notification system.  For your organization, it may be a simple “text-tree” supported by Twitter and Facebook messages.
  2. Maintain procedures that rely on traditional media outlets as a hedge against disruptions to mobile communications. Difficulties in restoring power and cell phone service quickly in hard hit areas can’t be ignored. A Saturday New York Times story, “Fractured Recovery Divides the Region,” carries a poignant reminder of that fact from a desperate Long Islander whose home was flooded. “I just keep waiting for someone with a megaphone and a car to just tell us what to do…I’m lost.”
  3. Closely monitor social media to debunk rumors and false information. Sandy brought many despicable examples of bad actors carelessly or deliberately sharing falsehoods during and after the storm. As exemplified by the good work of BuzzFeed’s Jack Steuf, though, it does appear that the social world can successfully “out” falsehoods and their perpetrators fairly quickly.

Superstorm Sandy shows us emergency plans that advise having battery operated radios and extra batteries on hand aren’t ready for the digital age. And with the near certainty that virtually every business will someday face a major disruption, now is the time to upgrade your preparedness.

Advertisements