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Improving Crisis Communications at Mass Casualty Events

When shots rang out just 15 minutes or so into this year’s July 4th holiday parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, the crowd at first thought they were hearing fireworks. Then it became deadly.

As a retired police commander, hearing news of this atrocity made me immediately think of the law enforcement team onsite, who found themselves suddenly transported from a joyous community celebration to a type of war zone.

If you are a first responder or work in the industry, you already know what local law enforcement was doing: trying to answer an extensive list of questions, instantaneously, so they could stop the active threat, and to know when it would be safe to call in fire, medical and ambulance teams.

I’m sure officers at the recent deadly mall shooting in Copenhagen, Denmark, needed to answer the same set of questions.  

The only way to accomplish this is with accurate information. We cannot make our next move based on a social media post. Instead, we must confirm facts before we can share and act on them. And speed is everything.

In my career, one of the biggest obstacles that slowed our reaction time at large-scale events was a lack of unified communications. I have seen the challenges repeat themselves far too often.

While the specifics of these cases will certainly be studied, as they all are, my overall point is that these critical event scenes are complicated, fast moving, and most essentially, they depend on rapid communication to save lives.

Where Crisis Communications Break Down

If you are in the emergency services or part of a major incident response team, you are likely well aware that response could often be faster if the right people had the right information, allowing them to act in a timely fashion.

However, in many jurisdictions, police rely on one communication platform, while fire and paramedics have another, and the ambulance crews yet another. This is often compounded by the traditional communication bottlenecks (telephone calls) required to bridge these communications gaps, further slowing the response.

For example, the control room commander might spend ten valuable minutes talking to individual commanders and specialists attending the scene in various telephone calls, trying to gather the facts of the mass casualty event. And then they must relay this information in additional calls, often one after the other, as time ticks by. And this same type of phone tree and text message communications often occur when bringing in fire and medical crews during the next phase of response.

All of these things, and related complications, take time – the very thing we have least – in a mass casualty event.

However, it doesn’t have to remain this way: Technology is changing the emergency response landscape.

Modern Critical Event Communication Strategy

Adopting an effective critical event communication management strategy and platform frees first responders and agencies from siloed and bottlenecked communications. It also eliminates the risk of using consumer-grade apps that some agencies try and use. I know this because I’ve seen this work in practice, and experienced the powerful difference it makes.

It works like this:

  • Law enforcement declares a major incident.
  • With a single alert, the command center quickly and easily notifies responders and partners of the exact location, the type of incident, the hazards present, access to the scene, the number and severity of casualties, and which emergency services are present.
  • There is no wondering if the critical event comms went out. You know because it is a two-way system, and recipients can confirm they received the message with a single click.
  • You also can instantly alert members of the public in a geofenced area around the incident. Should they shelter in place? Watch for suspicious activity? Clear the area?

This kind of messaging platform also has applications for all types of government, education, and workplace emergencies. In fact, an increasing number of agencies and departments are adopting this type of communications platform.

Moving Forward in CEM Communications

A critical event management communication platform is all about getting timely and accurate information wherever and whenever you need it, then sharing it with everyone who needs to know.

I’m a firm believer in providing first responders with the best tools available, to help them do their jobs and help the public as efficiently, effectively, and safely as possible.

Modern CEM systems are central to that goal, and I firmly believe that as a CEM provider we are materially contributing to these efforts and helping the emergency services teams save lives.

About BlackBerry AtHoc

Research firm Frost & Sullivan awarded the BlackBerry® AtHoc® CEM platform with the 2021 Technology Innovation Leadership Award for Safe Cities, recognizing AtHoc as a best-in-class critical event management solution. And AtHoc has jointly won, with Greater Manchester Police, two UK National Technology Awards, including Mobile Innovation of the Year 2021 and Best UK Public Sector Project in 2022. AtHoc is also StateRamp Authorized in the U.S.

Learn more here or follow @AtHoc.

Chris Ullah

About Chris Ullah

Chris Ullah is a retired Police Superintendent and Solutions Expert for BlackBerry AtHoc Critical Communications.