As every critical event management (CEM) manual or training course will tell you, messages need to be clear, straightforward, and easy to act on. When people or organizations are at risk, clear language saves time, and can often save lives. It’s a no-brainer, right?
And yet communication issues in CEM have existed for far too long — notable cases include Hurricane Katrina in 2008 and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
When we spoke to emergency management officer and former paramedic Grayson Cockett about barriers to collaboration in CEM, he warned of the prevalence of jargon in this space:
“Communication is cited in every after-action report as one of the things that needs to be improved. Quite often the perception is that something has gone wrong with communication equipment or that somebody didn't get an email, but most of the time it's person-to-person communication that didn't work because the wrong language was used.”
A Call for Clarification of CEM Terms
If it’s universally accepted (in theory, at least) that leaders need to be clear when they communicate in a crisis, why doesn’t our industry follow suit when we talk about critical event management?
For example, it’s always seemed odd to me that there are so many ways experts describe CEM-related topics. Off the top of my head, there are:
- Emergency management
- Crisis management
- Contingency planning
- Business continuity planning
- Risk management
- Resilience planning
- Emergency response planning
And when it comes to technologies that can help, decision-makers in organizations are often left puzzled. Do they need a “mass notification system,” “emergency communications solution,” or an “emergency alerting system”?
Should they consider a “public safety alerts solution,” a “secure communication solution,” a “security and communication solution,” or even “situational awareness software” — to deal with a disaster, incident, crisis, event, threat, or risk?
Anyone shopping for a solution to essentially the same set of problems would be hard-pressed to know where to start.
Technology companies and CEM experts should be leading by example, right down to how we talk about our industry, and our products and solutions. It’s time we collectively cleaned up our language and made it easier for people and organizations to understand the tools and systems that can keep us all safe.
Getting on the Same Page Through Simple CEM Language
How do we unlock a better way to talk about the tasks, tools, and solutions in the CEM industry — one that makes sense to everyone from government and business leaders to those tasked with looking after people on the ground?
It’s really about using plain language.
Take for example the concept of situational awareness — a term long used in military and policing scenarios. It’s so broad and all-encompassing that it’s become vague. NIST describes it this way: “Within a volume of time and space, the perception of an enterprise’s security posture and its threat environment; the comprehension/meaning of both taken together (risk); and the projection of their status into the near future (NIST glossary).”
For anyone left scratching their head, I’d put it this way: “Situational awareness is knowing where you are and what’s going on around you.” It sounds basic — and it is — but it’s critical to being as alert and informed as possible, and so able to make better decisions. For organizations facing a crisis, it’s about knowing where people are, what’s happening in their environment, what risks need addressing, and who’s responsible for what.
And let’s end with one of the most essential terms of all: Critical Event Management.
What’s the difference between a critical event and a crisis or emergency? When CEM providers observed that their technology could be useful for situations that weren’t necessarily full-blown emergencies, they needed a broader term and landed on critical event. For example, to a manufacturer, a critical event may be an unexpected road closure that means a whole set of factory workers are going to be late for their shift. It may not be a crisis, but it might turn into one if you can’t plan around it.
The Emergency Management Association (EMA) says CEM is “A method to rapidly form and communicate unified responses to emergency situations…members from all departments play a role in making decisions, which lessens the possibility of missing or misjudging a critical piece of information.”
I’d simply say that “critical event management” is how an organization prepares for, deals with, and addresses the results of any incident that poses a risk to its assets, finances, people, or reputation. Those incidents could include IT system failures, cyberattacks, utility outages, pandemic outbreaks, weather events — or more routine issues that still pose an operational challenge.
Explain CEM Terms Like I’m 12
When we put together product briefs internally, we often include a section called “Explain it like I’m 12.” That’s not to dumb things down. Most of the 12-year-olds I know are really bright, they’re just not CEM experts.
When we write for an audience that’s not an insider, we say what we mean, avoid jargon, and use examples to clarify. That’s something that helps everyone involved get on the same page, whether they’re a newbie or a veteran. And it’s something the CEM industry – one that calls for clear communication in a crisis – can do better, every day.