No One-Size-Fits-All Communications for Emergency Management

When it comes to emergency communication, no one size fits all.

That was the recurring theme during the State Emergency Communications session Sunday morning.

From amateur radios to social media to emergency-management-specific tools, many things can ensure states are able to provide services people need during a disaster.

Chris Essid, deputy director of the Office of Communications at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said states should have redundant systems in their emergency communications.

“Having satellite. Having land mobile radio. Having all types of different technologies. We look at it as a tool kit,” Essid said. “You have different tools in your tool kit for different situations.”

The federal government is prepared to make $7 billion in grants available for state emergency communication systems, he said, and states should have a plan for their systems in order to benefit from those grants.

Communication is key in an emergency situation, said John Madden, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Alaska.

“Communication does not feed people,” he said. “It enables them to be fed.”

With that in mind, Madden said states should ensure whatever communications system they use will work in times of emergency.

Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, director of emergency management in Kentucky, said he has people mining social media in an emergency to see where things are needed.

“There’s an amazing set of tools coming that are not mouth-to-ear communication, they’re fingertip-to-eyeball communications,” said Heltzel. “We have better situational awareness because of social communications.”

Madden said any new tools should be viewed by what they can do in times of emergency, not necessarily by cost or how often they will be used.

“If the question is ‘How often will you use it?’ my honest answer is I hope I never have to use it,” Madden said.

Essid said while new technology may be the wave of the future in emergency communications, states must still maintain and fund legacy systems until those new systems are ready to go.

“Emergency communication will not have a single definition; it is situational,” Madden said. “It’s range of hazards. It’s all sorts of things and that makes it very, very complex. The failure of communications can result in failure in other things.”