Emergency communications: what is the problem?

By Chad Pacholik, Emergency Management Planning Coordinator, Integrated Partnership for Regional Emergency Management

Emergency management requires- effective and predictable communications. When communications fail the impacts can be disastrous, a fact that has unfortunately been proven time and again.  Why does it keep happening?  Is technology to blame? Or, is it the human aspects of communication that fail? One thing is for sure, there is no one silver bullet solution to guarantee effective, predictable communications.

Traditionally, efforts towards emergency communications have focused on technology.  Having more technology and connecting to more people was seen as the way to ensure that one received the information required.  This approach was in response to the difficulty in receiving timely, accurate information – an information vacuum. With fewer stakeholders involved and less confusion over jurisdiction the challenge was to find connections between those who had information and those who did not. Faced with trying to get more information into the hands of those who needed it, additional connections were sought by adding more technology based linkages.  Access to additional communications technologies was meant to poke holes in the information vacuum, a vehicle to exchange information and ensure situational awareness of those involved. This approach builds technical interoperability.

Today the operational environment, and indeed the entire emergency management field, continues to more layers of legal (and perceived) responsibilities; all in an environment of increased “financial restraint.”  In terms of communications, we have more choice and access to technology than ever before.  Technology continues to play a foundational role in emergency communications; however, it is not the only consideration.  Gone are the days that we seek to overcome an information vacuum. The tides have shifted and we are facing a tsunami of information.  Like many other fields, emergency management is faced with the onslaught of big data.  Instead of seeking access to more information we need to grab what information we can before the wave sails by us. Building technical interoperability is no longer sufficient.

We must adapt to this proverbial tsunami and find ways to effectively use its force.  We must define the entire system and not just the technology: we must build functional interoperability.2  During the International Crisis Mappers Conference (2013), Jon Gosier introduced three problems with big data: variety, velocity, and volume. Appling these 3Vs to emergency communication we will see that with more technology, an increased number of stakeholders and specialties, there is more variety in the sources, types, and formatting of information.  In addition to the ballooning variety of information, there is the increased velocity at which information is flowing.  Information can now be exchanged at near real time speeds.   Through social media, computer aided dispatch systems or information compilation platforms like MASAS, information is flowing whether we choose to use it or not.  The result of increased variety and velocity is an ever increasing volume of data and information; anyone who has tried to keep abreast of an event on social media can attest to this fact.

Now more than ever, because of the pressure associated with the 3Vs of big data, communication challenges cannot be relieved by technology alone:we must address the human aspects of communication as well.

The Canadian Communications Interoperability Continuum lays out 5 components to interoperability: Governance, Standard Operating Procedures, Technology, Training/Exercises, and Usage.  If we look at these 5 components, it is clear that technology is only one fifth of the solution.  Acknowledging that emergency communications is mostly a human problem and not technology is important, but what does that mean?  How do we move forward?

We must build from a foundation of shared understanding and expectations; we must have common definitions and clarify assumptions.  Until a clear understanding of information needs is achieved, work towards developing accurate, predictable emergency communications will only address the symptoms and not the problem.  It is easy to overhaul a situation report or add another piece of technology, but one must reflect on what information is required and why.  When we operated in an information vacuum, we had the luxury of accepting all the information that was available and a relatively long timeframe to analyze it.  Now that we are riding a tsunami of information we must be deliberate in what we take in and why.  After all, receiving the information is only one step in the information cycle. Once received, information must then be organized and analyzed so that we can make more informed and appropriate decisions.

While we stand on the shores of a sea of information, we must ask ourselves whether our respective organizations are ready.  Do we have effective and predictable communications?  If not, the next logical question is: What can we do to better prepare?

The equation at the bottom of this page breaks down communication into manageable, sequential steps to build a comprehensive system to ride out the inevitable information tsunami that lurks just below the surface.

One must start by identifying what information is needed and why before turning attention to whom they would receive that information from.  Once complete, the triggers and mechanics (when and how) of exchanging information can be clarified.  The final step is ongoing training and exercising; a multiplying factor in predictable communication.

Ask yourself, can your organization, at all levels, solve this equation for the hazards that you face?  If not, what is preventing you? Emergency management is a shared responsibility, but each of us are individually accountable.  We know that emergencies will continue to occur and that human aspects of communications must be improved.   Let us remember that lessons observed ≠ lessons learned.  What will it take to prioritize building effective and predictable communications for your organization?


Gosier, J. (2013). What’s so big about big data? Retrieved from Crisis Mappers: http://crisismappers.net/video/iccm-2013-panel- what-s-so-big-about-big-data

Government of Canada. (2011, January). Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada. Retrieved from http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/n trprblt-strtg/index-eng.aspx

Integrated Partnership for Regional Emergency Management. (2015). Regional Emergency Communications Strategy. Retrieved from Integrated Partnership for Regional EmergnecyManagement: http://www.iprem.ca/initiatives/Pages/communications.aspx

Bio: Chad Pacholik is an Emergency Management Planning Coordinator with the IPREM.  He leads several projects including Regional Emergency Communications.  Along with a background in technical communications systems, he has spent much of the last two and a half years investigating various aspects of emergency communications.  chad.pacholik@gov.bc.ca