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Critical comms at major events

The year 2017 saw far too many acts of terror targeting large crowds at major public events, writes Owen Miles, pictured, Technical Director, EMEA at Everbridge, the critical event management product company.

Unfortunately this is not a new state of affairs and experts fear it will repeat itself in the year ahead. According to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which works with MI5, the UK‘s threat level has not dipped below ‘substantial’ since the measurement was introduced in 2006. It has instead risen further with instances such as the Manchester bombing in May last year causing the threat level to be raised to ‘critical’ on more than one occasion.

However, acts of terror aren’t the only crises that trigger a national state of high alert and threaten major public events. Hurricanes and extreme weather can cause similar levels of disruption and also require a similar level of communication with stakeholders. Whatever the crisis or its scale, be it an IT outage, cyber-attack, extreme weather incident or terror attack, major public events drawing large crowds have been and will continue to be exposed to risks. For this reason, all major events require communication and engagement with multiple stakeholders; from spectators, employees and sponsors to emergency services and transportation networks.
In these situations, having efficient communication and the facility to initiate a critical response plan plays a vital role in the mitigation of a crisis and can, on occasion, even mean the difference between life and death. When it comes to managing a crisis there are five key components that form the backbone of a robust critical event management strategy:

1.) Visualise and Assess – Aggregating data from a number of sources, including CCTV cameras, social media, police feeds, and live weather and traffic reports will allow you to visualise the threat environment and make a more accurate assessment of the threat.
2.) Locate – Map out the incident zone(s) and establish which assets, people and resources are impacted. Decide who can and should respond based on skills sets, availability and location.
3.) Act – Execute pre-defined response plans determined by the specifics of the incident.
4.) Communicate and Collaborate – Alert appropriate stakeholders with targeted and secure messages via multiple communication channels, including SMS, email, telephone calls or conference calls. Assign tasks and continue to communicate, verifying employee safety and sharing regular status updates.
5.) Analyse – Review the incident, once resolved, and produce after action reports and audit trails to establish what improvements can be implemented to learn from past incidents.

In the case of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, crisis communications played a vital role in the entire event from the immediate response, all the way to the eventual culmination of the crisis. In this instance, law enforcement, healthcare services and local businesses utilised a mass notification platform to lock down areas of the city, notify employees, manage municipal services and inform the local community and tourists. By enacting a clearly defined communications plan, the city succeeded in actioning one of the most effective regional lock-downs in history, which helped to minimise additional fatalities and keep the streets empty and its citizens safe.

Looking at another type of critical event, in 2016 at the Farnborough International Airshow 30 minutes of torrential rainfall leading to flash flooding halted proceedings at what is the world’s second largest airshow and one of the most important commercial events in the international aerospace and defence industry calendar. With millions of pounds of aviation equipment at stake, a critical communications platform was used in the newly automated incident control room to log relevant data and enable emergency services to communicate and co-ordinate an effective response. In this instance, the use of efficient communications allowed Farnborough’s incident room to evacuate 57,000 people in an orderly manner in less than two hours.

Critical instances such as these should encourage all companies to question how prepared they are to respond and manage communications during a major event. Whatever the scale of the incident or the cause, there are five best practices that provide the basis for any critical response plan:

1.) Before You Communicate, Have A Plan

Crises by nature are often unpredictable but a considerable advantage can be gained by anticipating types of incident that a major event might face and having multiple plans. Focus on flexible plans that are capable of addressing multiple incidents, emergencies or disasters.

2.) Plan to Communicate Through All Stages

Active threat timelines evolve rapidly and the way you respond can be the difference between a routine and well-managed incident and an escalating crisis. It is absolutely vital to gain an understanding of the situation as early as possible in order to most effectively communicate at the start when minutes matter most and then throughout the incident. Failing to do this and losing control of the situation will result in the crisis worsening. Dr. Robert Chandler, an international crisis communications expert, defined six stages to any response plan: Warning, Risk Assessment, Response, Management, Resolution and Recovery.

3.) Plan For Unreliable Communications

No single communications delivery path is ever 100pc reliable 100pc of the time, but during a critical event communication methods can be subject to higher traffic volumes and more likely to fail. It is therefore critical that a number of channels are utilised at any one time to communicate with your stakeholders to guarantee the message gets through.

4.) Plan For Inside And Outside Your Walls

When a crisis occurs it is natural to become preoccupied with the impact this has on your organisation alone. However, external factors and wider surroundings must also be considered, for example, what affect will this event have on local transport and how will that impact your organisation.

5.) Plan to Automate Your Communications

Setting out pre-defined and agreed communications plans with specific parameters will improve response times and success rates. The difference between implementing a 1-click automated notification plan and trying to determine who to contact mid-crisis can save minutes and potentially lives.

As we move into 2018, businesses and organisations should draw on the experience and examples of critical incidents that have affected major events in years gone by. One vital part of this is to use the right technology, and using those capabilities, design multiple targeted and efficient plans that can be implemented the moment a crisis occurs. Taking this approach will improve stakeholder safety, organisational resilience, and also ensure that any critical event that arises is well-managed with specific responses.


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