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Communications Challenges in Emergency Management and Response

Does it need to be said that emergency communications differ from communications in everyday life? Perhaps not. But it’s the specific ways in which emergency communications are so out of the norm that provide the very basis for communication challenges in emergency response and management. What are those challenges? 

Why communicating during emergencies is difficult

Well, for starters, disasters and emergencies are stressful times, disrupting routine patterns. One major pattern they disturb is sleep. And sleep deprivation makes it far more difficult for responding parties to comprehend emergency communications and act accordingly.

Another challenge is the role of rumor and speculation. Rumors are rife during disasters.

What’s more, they often fill the information vacuum that opens when official answers aren’t available fast enough. That complicates the task of emergency services – not only do they have to disseminate correct information, but they must also counter circulating misinformation.

Scholars have also noted that emergency communications themselves serve a different purpose than everyday communications.

Official emergency warnings, for instance, attempt to elicit a specific response rather than most other forms of communication that seek to raise awareness or provide knowledge.

The role of individual factors

And there’s more. Community factors, as scholars have studied, also play a major role in the reception of emergency communications.

For infrastructural reasons, residents of rural communities, for example, may have more difficulty receiving warnings than those living in urban areas.

People who have more contacts in the community are also likelier to receive more (unofficial) warnings than those that don’t. As a result, they’re likelier to trust officials and heed those warnings.

It’s also been noted that families, more than individuals, tend to listen to evacuation warnings.

Indeed, research indicates that people tend to confer with family, extended family, and friends prior to making a decision. The subsequent decisions they make are then based on some of the following factors:

  • Families are more likely to act if they have relatives nearby who may warn them and offer them short-term shelter.
  • Concern for children’s safety will elicit quicker response from parents.

One more point worth noting – people often view their pets as they would children. But whereas families with children usually act more quickly to take precautions, such as evacuation, people with pets may endanger their own lives by refusing to evacuate, because many public shelters do not accommodate pets.

The role of the individual in emergency communication

Then, there’re individual factors. For instance, different people often listen to the same message but vary in what they hear and how they respond.

How can this be? Experience plays a role. Often people rely on their previous emergency experience to determine what actions they’ll take.

As a result, transients, tourists, and newcomers to affected areas lacking knowledge of local hazards are likely to react differently to long-term residents.

In addition, people tend to make personal assessments of their relative safety. If their perception of personal risk is high, they are likely to act quickly. However, if the perception is low, they’ll delay.

Of course, none of these factors individually is conclusive. However, when taken together, they make emergency communications far more challenging.

How to mitigate these emergency communication challenges, though? Develop a solid emergency management communications plan. To find out how, read our dedicated article on emergency communications.