The efficiency of information flow through an organization – and from one organization to another – is a critical success factor when it comes to emergency response. Internally, disasters require a coordinated response across various functional areas, including customer service, dispatch, operations, finance, logistics, planning, and public relations. From an external perspective, utilities need to coordinate with other utilities as well as local government, fire, police, hospital, and other organizations. These ad hoc teams are tasked with coming together during an emergency, a feat which is only possible by communicating and sharing information. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done!
What Makes Information Flow So Hard?
Yes, enabling streamlined information flow is tough, and there are several key reasons for this.
First and foremost, it’s likely that a large percentage of people working during any given emergency event will not have extensive experience in crisis management. Aside from police, fire, and similar personnel, most are accustomed to working within an organization that provides a service with relatively predictable day-today operations. Couple this with the fact that a percentage of workers will be operating under their second roles, as well as the fact that participants will generally have varying levels of familiarity with emergency response tools and procedures, and you have a situation where what to communicate – and how – is often unknown.
Similarly, the differing levels of experience amongst the various participants can create inherent communication barriers. Experienced participants may not trust the inexperienced participants to do the right thing, which can dampen the flow of information from one experience level to another. Additionally, the folks with less experience may have trouble following or interpreting the messages coming from the more experienced personnel.
From an external agency perspective, different sectors tend to have different processes, standards, and jargon, the aggregate of which complicates the flow of information. Even organizations in the same sector – like electric utilities offering mutual assistance – can have different protocols and expectations of what should and should not be communicated.
How Can the Flow of Information Be Improved?
As with most things in life and business, there is no silver bullet answer when it comes to how to improve information flow between internal and external stakeholders during emergency situations. It usually has more to do with the people than the organization or how it’s structured. That said, I can definitely offer some directional guidance based on what I’ve learned over the years working with various utilities on their emergency preparedness plans and processes.
Before the Event
When it comes to improving the flow of information during an emergency situation, one obvious solution is to plan in advance and train, train, and train some more – especially second role personnel. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to do this regularly due to competing priorities. Therefore, it’s critical to find a way to make it a priority and hold people accountable for getting it done.
During the Restoration
The low hanging fruit here is to identify any opportunities to improve the frequency, effectiveness, and robustness of the restoration information that is communicated to employees – especially field workers. Some examples could involve things like:
- Improving outage information logging processes
- Instituting standardized communication “templates” to facilitate easier absorption of the communicated information
- Improving the speed and quality of information flow to liaisons
- Providing more frequent storm updates for field personnel via multiple communication channels
After the Restoration
Perhaps one of the most important things utilities can do to improve their information flow is to institutionalize a formal post-event debrief process. Simply put, there is no better way to identify barriers to information flow – and to improve its efficiency – than to learn from past experience. To do this effectively, it is critical to:
- Commit to debriefing after every major event
- Focus on gaining actionable feedback
- Encourage honesty and candor
- Document, present and execute the findings
- Provide feedback to those who participate in the debriefs
The flow of information during and after an emergency event represents the lifeblood of the restoration effort. Yes, there are barriers to effective information flow, but they can be minimized by training, more efficient communications with field personnel, and the implementation of a formal debriefing process.