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Why We Must Upgrade Communication Tools for the Digital Age of Emergencies

As a retired Police Superintendent, I can tell you exactly when I witnessed a watershed moment in critical event communications — it occurred during an attack on a concert venue. This is when the first responders involved came face to face with a tragic fact: Relying on outdated communication methods introduces significant challenges and delays that can jeopardize response efforts.

And the government inquiry that followed revealed as much.

Only now can I look back and see the difference between organizations and agencies that have purpose-built critical event communications tools and those that do not.

Critical Event Communications: An Attack Reveals Gaps

My former police force, Greater Manchester Police, patrols an area of about three million citizens in the United Kingdom. In all my service with the force, in every major operation or exercise, communications were a challenge. Ariana Grande was playing at the Manchester Arena in May 2017 when a suicide bomber self-detonated in the crowd. The blast wounded hundreds of people and killed nearly two-dozen.

And that evening, the primary method of communication that the emergency response services used was the telephone — ringing up and finding out what was actually going on. They were forced to fight their way through disinformation on social media; bottlenecks in EMS phone trees; and some responders getting frustrated and acting on their own, outside of normal channels and out of view from incident command.

CEM Communication Problems Without a Unified Method

A long government public inquiry into overall emergency response to the attack found three major areas that needed improvement: 
1. Better internal and external communications

Without a unified platform, different agencies like police, fire and ambulance services operate independently on separate communication systems. Phone trees are still commonly used, but they create bottlenecks as each person must be contacted one by one. This slow, linear process delays the dissemination of vital information during critical incidents.

2. Improved monitoring of social media for misinformation  
While newer technologies like SMS, email and social media seem like promising alternatives, they also introduce problems. With too many options to choose from and no standard protocol, responders waste valuable time deciding which channel to use rather than focusing on the emergency at hand. Misinformation on social media can also cloud situational awareness if not properly monitored and addressed. 

3. The use of consumer-grade apps where responders self-deployed without going through command and control

The government review also found that consumer apps pose another coordination risk if personnel self-deploy without going through the proper command structure. This is something that happened following the concert attack and is another challenge that must be solved.

Watch a recent discussion (video) about the critical communications challenges organizations face, including what responders faced the night of the concert attack.

CEM Communication Improvements with a Proven Platform

In contrast to the barriers caused by a lack of unified communications, purpose-built critical event management tools streamline communication across agencies on a single integrated platform. Greater Manchester Police adopted BlackBerry® AtHoc® after identifying communication improvements as a priority, post-incident. Through “no-notice” test exercises, they proved they were seeing immediate benefits — reducing the time to brief all key stakeholders from 76 minutes using traditional phone tree methods to less than five minutes to complete the same number of briefings today.

The AtHoc platform's unified system allows alerts to be sent simultaneously to various endpoints like phones, computers, screens, PA (public address) systems and social media. This ensures all responders receive timely, consistent messages regardless of device or location. It also facilitates response tracking through two-way communications that traditional methods lack.

A CEM Communications Platform for Daily Use

Now the police force uses BlackBerry AtHoc during every shift.  
Rather than wasting days planning routine events over email and phone calls, Greater Manchester Police completes these preparations in a matter of hours through BlackBerry AtHoc templates and response tracking. They've decommissioned their old SMS system, saving £500,000 annually by consolidating communications in one trusted platform.

They also can ramp up coverage quickly and be ready for anything that develops. If their commander needs to know whether 50 officers could return to duty within an hour's travel distance, they can actually draw on a map, a one-hour geofence travel distance area, and through BlackBerry AtHoc, they can send an alert out to everybody located within that range. They can even create alerts for a certain skill set if need be.

Because officers can respond with a click, the commander will find out very, very quickly how many could return. If only 20 said they can come back, that then gives the commander choices to make: Do I expand that travel distance for my return-to-work request, or do I make tactical decisions based on the number of officers who can return within the hour? 

BlackBerry AtHoc also provides leadership and emergency response teams full visibility into every alert issued. And compliance reporting features make it easy to produce logs and records as required by regulations, long after each situation is resolved.

Even though I’m no longer with Greater Manchester Police, it’s exciting to see them win awards, most recently for innovating with BlackBerry AtHoc to break the cycle of domestic abuse. And more effective hot-spot policing is another example of what you can achieve through this dedicated CEM communications platform.  

Critical Event Communications: What’s Next?

Does your organization lack a dedicated critical event communications tool, so you are forced to rely on inefficient, fragmented methods of communicating that introduce delays? Does your current approach create communication silos between groups that impede information sharing and coordination when seconds matter most? 
Maybe what’s next is taking some time to explore a purpose-built platform like BlackBerry AtHoc, that streamlines processes, speeds response times and provides accountability through integrated alerting and response tracking across agencies. When lives are on the line, having a trusted, pressure-tested system to cut through coordination challenges is incredibly valuable. That’s something I have seen through my own real-world experience, including a watershed moment I’ll never forget.

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Chris Ullah

About Chris Ullah

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