Emergency, Crisis and Risk Communications in CBRNE Events


By Dee L. Ruelas and Frank G. Rando

From the public’s initial contact and interaction with the public safety dispatch center to the end recovery phase of an event, the seamless provision, accuracy and management of critical information is vitally important.

Communication is often cited as a major component needing improvement during post-event after action de-briefings and reports. In the U.S., emergency communications are one of the main functional areas of the National Response Framework, under Emergency Support Function -#2, which includes:

  • Coordination with telecommunications and information technology industries
  • Restoration and repair of telecommunications infrastructure
  • Protection, restoration, and sustainment of national cyber and information technology resource
  • Oversight of communications within the Federal incident management system and response structures

An intact and robust communications ESF and the national communications infrastructure as a whole, have  critical and obvious roles to play across the entire spectrum of the national Emergency Support Functions, such as Information and Planning (ESF #5), Public Health and Medical Services (ESF# 8),Search and Rescue (ESF# 9) ,Firefighting (ESF #4),Public Safety and Security (ESF # 13), Oil and Hazardous Materials, including CBRN response, (ESF# 11) and External Affairs  which would incorporate  emergency public information and protective action guidance ( ESF# 15).

Emergency communications system infrastructure includes the hardwired and wireless telephone networks, broadcast and cable television, radio, Public Safety  Land Mobile Radio, satellite systems and increasingly the Internet.

In emergency radio communications, interoperability utilizing common frequencies, as well as a common language among agencies are of crucial importance. In events where multiple agencies will be responding to an event, such as a CBRNe or public health emergency, a Unified Incident Command System (ICS) would be established which mandates commonalities in equipment, frequencies and “ in the clear” language and radio etiquette, without the use of specialized codes which may be uncommon among agencies and result in misinterpretation.

The need for operational security and encryption of messages may be required for sensitive operations, therefore, only designated and “ cleared”  key personnel with an operational  need to know would be briefed regarding secure information.

Multiple factors such as topography, weather, electromagnetic interference, human error, infrastructure disruption, noise, distances, equipment quality and capabilities and physical obstacles, eg. subway or traffic tunnels can affect communications.

Increasingly, social media continues to  play an important role in emergency, crisis and risk communications. Social media notifications can instantly alert users to hazardous conditions in their area as well as transmit official risk minimization actions and protective countermeasures to undertake. In addition, social media has also been used  as an accountability tool for affected individuals to utilize to confirm their location and status in emergency situations.

While public safety communications and risk communications may appear to be two distinct areas, they have several commonalities and overarching roles. Both public safety and risk communications must have   senders, receivers and a body of information to share and acknowledge on each end. In essence, emergency, crisis and risk messages sent at the right time from the right person can save lives and prevent other categories of harm.

Communications failures at various levels can contribute to catastrophic outcomes as evidenced by several events in recent history. The hard lessons learned from the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have shown that communications systems were destroyed and overwhelmed, or otherwise failed to operate as intended or desired. Major factors hampering radio communications at the Twin Towers was the lack of interoperability, damaged or failed network infrastructure, and overwhelmed by simultaneous communication between superior officers and subordinates. Chaos and confusion can definitely  impede the flow and exchange  of accurate information, as was the case on that fateful day. Conflicting information regarding the nature of the emergency, off duty personnel self dispatching and entering the building without radios, public safety dispatch call centers, as well as on-site personnel oversaturated with telephone and radio traffic, multiple conversations occurring simultaneously on a particular channel have all been cited as serious issues during the ongoing emergency response. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) calculated that approximately one third of radio messages transmitted during the surge of communications were incomplete or unintelligible. The lack of interoperability and unintelligible communications contributed to a poorly received order to evacuate and the loss of life of responders.

In CBRNE events, public safety communications among the command, coordination and response assets are extremely important and related to public emergency warnings and notifications, health and safety related crisis and risk communications, such as precautionary and preparedness measures, observing and reporting health effects, obtaining medical treatment and countermeasures, such as prophylactic antibiotics  immunizations or other treatments.

Environmental, agent characterization  and medical data collected, analyzed and interpreted from the field, medical care facilities, and  laboratories will drive crisis and public health decision-making, ultimate risk assessments and crisis/ risk communications to responders and the general public. Accurate and rumor free information transmitted by a public information team is absolutely critical to minimize fear, suppress panic, reassure the public and direct communities to undertake appropriate protective actions and event-related countermeasures.

In the recovery phase, communication can help restore trust, which may have been shaken and facilitate the process of understanding, learning and healing. Crisis and risk communications in a CBRNE event should be as transparent as reasonably possible without compromising operational security and subsequent investigative, prosecutorial and possible retaliatory options via a nation-state’s counterterrorism/antiterrorism policies. The overall effectiveness and success of crisis and risk communications, as well as the outcomes of dispatched response elements to affected communities can always be enhanced by pre-event community-wide planning and preparedness activities, such as community outreach and empowerment programs. If grassroots efforts are not implemented and  carried out  among the populace, with appropriate interface, collaboration and mutual respect and cooperation among the emergency services, emergency planning authorities and the citizenry, then  even the best communications plans and systems are bound to be inadequate and will fail.

About the Authors

Ms. Ruelas possesses over 25 years of multidisciplinary experience in public safety communications, emergency medical services, health care, environmental safety and jurisprudence. She is also a trained and ordained minister. She is the owner of Teach 2 Prepare, a consultation, training and educational entity focusing in the areas of emergency preparedness and response, community recovery and resiliency, occupational-environmental health and safety, homeland security-counterterrorism, training, education and exercise design, development and evaluation. She is also a respected and accomplished instructor, educator, author and serves as an SME, NAEMT Certified instructor and American Heart Association CPR Program Manager and Instructor for Integrated Community Solutions to Active Violence Events ( ICSAVE.org) ,an Arizona-based non-profit organization.

Mr. Rando has over 30 years of experience in public safety emergency services, including law enforcement, criminal investigations, high- risk tactical entry, tactical medicine, technical and heavy rescue and as a hazardous materials CBRNE specialist, paramedic and flight medic. He is a Surgical First Assistant, Respiratory Therapist, Emergency Medical Technician, environmental health scientist, consultant, instructor, educator, author  and co-owner of Teach 2 Prepare and an SME/NAEMT Certified Instructor for Integrated Community Solutions to Active Violence Events (ICSAVE.org) He has served as a Counterterrorism /Homeland Security SME and instructor for several US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense projects and programs.

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