The Emergency Notification and Escalation Process

I think that one of the biggest challenges in the Emergency Response process is devising efficient and effective escalation and notification protocol.  Who gets called and when?  What are the triggers to escalate?  Who is being called into action vs. who needs to simply be informed?  This is particularly challenging when the event is one that starts out small and grows into something larger.

The response to Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of an event where this process got confused and mismanaged.  Certain agencies were waiting to be called into the response process while those in need expected them to engage automatically.  The “engagement trigger”, if you will, was not defined and understood.  The responder thought the trigger was a request by the local authorities, the local authorities expected the trigger was implied by the extent of the crisis.  One waited for the phone call, while the others sat waiting for help.

I think it is important that engagement triggers be defined for all entities that could have a response action.  Are there automatic triggers, where a response team will conditionally engage given certain parameters?  Or, are there teams who will always be called into action by others?  These must be defined, communicated, known and rehearsed.  Back to the Katrina disaster – most agencies knew what to do – they just did not start doing it at the right time due to the confusion on when or how to engage.

With regards to the notification process, I often see confusion in programs between a notification that calls you into action vs. a notification to be informed or put on stand-by.  Many organizations use a multi-tiered notification process utilizing, Alerts, Declarations and an Alls Clear notification system.

An alert, prepares responders for the potential to engage should the situation escalate.  A declaration is a call to action.  Some events will bypass the alert stage and immediately result in a declaration.  Not all alerts will result in a subsequent declaration.  But, all alerts and declarations must be followed by an eventual Alls Clear. 

I have also worked with many organizations that did not have a protocol for issuing an Alls Clear communications.  I think it is important to notify all team members and all parties included in the response process, whether actively engaged or not, that the situation has ended and they can return to normal operations.

And then there is the challenge of notifying those who must engage (a call to action) and simply those who want to know.  I highly encourage limiting that “want to know” group to a select few.  Most of these folks can be kept informed after-the-fact with post event summaries.  Most of your emergency notification calls should be a call to action (or an alert to those who may be called to action).  Too often I have seen Command Centers and the emergency response process get bogged down by curiosity calls and fringe management interfering with those who have a job to do.

I recently worked with an organization that had a large number of non-responders who insisted they had a “need to know” about certain incidents.  This was remedied when there was an on-the-job injury at 3:00 am resulting in a phone call to all these individuals.  Suddenly, it became less important to include them in the notification tree and they settled for being on the post incident report distribution list.

There are many applications and services that facilitate the notification and alert process, but, the ease of use of these systems should not result in you simply adding folks to the notification list if it is not understood what their response responsibilities are.

Identify your triggers.  Make sure if you have automatic triggers that everyone understands when and where they apply.  And, include these triggers in your response drills and exercises.

Thank you for your input.