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Comms after Westminster

On Wednesday, March 22, terror revisited London, with a direct attack on the Palace of Westminster. As the effects of the attack unravelled, emergency services worked in unison with police to treat the wounded. Nick Hawkins, Managing Director EMEA of the critical communications product company Everbridge, pictured, reflects how emergency services can prepare for future crises.

The chances of being involved in a terrorist attack are incredibly remote, but for those in central London during the Westminster attack it would not have felt that way. Despite its rarity, terror is evolving. Terrorists are resorting to ‘day to day’ resources such as rental cars and knives – having realised they no longer need sophisticated explosives to take lives and spread fear. These new methods are arguably more difficult to track. Preparing for the unexpected is crucial.

Sophisticated communications technology can help unite emergency services during an incident, instruct citizens based on location and analyse activity for future attacks. In the US, state governments use critical communications technology to communicate with residents when disaster happens. In many states, it is mandatory to share contact information with the local government. Direct access to citizens’ details allows a mass notification approach in crises such as the Boston bombings. For example, the State of Florida used Everbridge, the critical communications platform, to manage public safety during Hurricane Matthew. As residents were forced to evacuate their homes and encounter unprecedented rainfall, wind, power outages and road closures, The State of Florida encouraged citizens to sign up for evacuation instructions and critical information sent via the platform.

With the threat of terror changing, the UK government and emergency services will certainly consider the benefits critical communications technology can provide. For example, if the UK Government had a means of communicating with residents in a two-mile radius of Westminster bridge, it could have locked down the area faster and prevented further pedestrians entering a potentially dangerous area.

The five pillars of critical communications

Central to the success of critical communications technology are five information exchange capabilities. Emergency services can significantly improve crisis management if the following actions are implemented:

– Assess the impact of threats to the community or business through front-line and real time social intelligence, network information and weather feeds.
– Locate people, including emergency service personnel that may be on call and available or in the area of the attack.
– Automate incident response by incorporating standard operation procedures and communication protocols into response activities.
– Communicate effectively by notifying residents and employees on their preferred contact path/device, at the right time, with the information they need.
– Analyse critical events to understand what can be learnt and therefore improved.

Power of platforms

Reliance on a single form of communication will not work during an emergency. It is important that Police, Ambulance and Fire services – as well as the military – implement a multi modal, critical communications platform to prioritise the safety of citizens and emergency personnel. No communications channel can ever be 100 per cent reliable 100pc of the time. Multi-modality transforms the speed at which people receive alerts. The most advanced critical communications platforms facilitate communication via more than 100 different communication devices and contact paths including email, SMS, VoIP calls, social media alerts and mobile app notifications, among many others. It is even possible to integrate critical communications platforms with tannoy systems or digital signage to deliver a more effective and holistic communications strategy.

The March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels highlighted how important multi-modal communications are. Belgium’s response to the attacks was complicated by a communications blackout, understaffing and a series of false alarms. During the attack, the mobile phone network went offline, making standard mobile communication impossible. The team at Brussels Airport made its public Wi-Fi discoverable and free, allowing anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled device to connect, send and receive messages.

Emergency services resorted to emails, iPad messages and a radio communications system called Astrid which medical staff found too complicated and time consuming. Lt. Col. Eric Mergny who coordinated the medical response at Brussels Airport said that Astrid limited his communications to the point where he was unable to check which local hospitals had the capacity to take patients. This led to the miscommunication that hospitals were full. An advanced multi-modal communications platform could have eliminated confusion and streamlined responses to limit fatalities.

Two-way or no-way

Just as multi-modality ensures that it is easier to receive a message, two way communications makes it simpler to confirm a response. In a critical emergency, every second counts, so organisations can use communications platforms to create and deliver bespoke templates that require a simple push of a button to respond. In doing so, the level of response to critical notifications can increase significantly. Combined, these two functions enable emergency services to respond smarter and faster to citizens in need. In situations where multi-modal communications and response templates are deployed together, response rates to incidents increase from around 20pc of recipients to more than 90 per cent.

Conclusion

Europe is beginning to adopt the US state-wide communications strategy. The Municipality of Pisa in Italy uses a critical communications platform to send alerts to citizens via fixed telephone, mobile, email and apps on smartphones. In the UK, The States of Guernsey is the first roll out of direct government to citizen mass notification. It uses Everbridge to co-ordinate its emergency response teams and enables residents to sign up to various day to day communication threads reducing the need for paper. The time and place of a terror attack may be extremely difficult to decipher, however, the ability to respond and limit damage can be significantly improved by implementing a coordinated communications strategy. Simply being ‘unprepared’ is no longer an excuse.


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