Outbreak: Why clear emergency communications deployment is critical (UK)

 Written by Pete Frasco, Senior Manager, Global Sales Engineering at BlackBerry 

Today in Wuhan and around the world, various organisations – from local emergency services to federal governments and disease control experts, are mobilising to contain the coronavirus crisis.  The coronavirus is a global health emergency, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). An animal-borne disease which originated at a market in Wuhan City, China, it is a suspected cousin to SARS, or ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’. Now, the coronavirus is fast becoming a new global public health epidemic, spreading across China and internationally to countries including the USA and the UK.

The eyes of the world are focused on emergency communications both locally and across the globe. At the time of writing, over 30,000 people have reportedly been infected and there have been 600 deaths. The rapid increase in figures is heightening global alarm. 

Getting the word out in times of crisis

Wuhan is in quarantine, with nobody allowed to enter or leave the city, and Hong Kong has closed its Chinese borders and is quarantining visitors from mainland China to stem the spread. Millions of people have been affected by the crisis.

 In a crisis like this, things can change in an instant. Faced with social media rumours, jammed mobile phone networks and general confusion in an information vacuum, when people panic, it can be a monumental challenge for public officials to manage.

However, just consider the scale of international co-ordination between thousands of stakeholders and millions of people that requires clear, real-time communications via thousands of channels and languages. How can governments, agencies, local councils and private organisations effectively get the word out to the right audiences?  Well-designed next-generation crisis communications. 

Addressing an outbreak with emergency response plans

Disease outbreaks require a different kind of response from emergency challenges like floods, fires or terrorist attacks. In an emergency, people must be moved away from danger as quickly as possible, and the active threat must be contained inside a specific location. 

In an epidemic or pandemic situation, affected individuals need to be identified as quickly as possible, then isolated from the general population.  Those not yet affected, need to know when and where to go to get tested and who to ask for further information – channeling the lines of enquiry. 

 If the right information can be distributed – it means small areas can be locked down or targeted with help, rather than large areas being evacuated unnecessarily, which can create huge disruption and economic impact. Also, networks of people who come in contact with carriers of a disease can be more easily located and contained. The tighter the geographic fences, the sooner the outbreak can be slowed down and contained.

The best laid plans often go awry

Outbreaks of disease require both a narrow geographic focus and an international range of incident management programs to contain it. For example, the local action to quarantine three major cities in China meant stopping all outbound flights, trains, subways and ferries. 

Emergency notification systems aimed at controlling epidemics should be interoperable across a wide range of networks, media and devices used by different agencies, first responders and health professionals.  Critical communication management systems must have two-way communication capabilities, making it easier to find out who needs assistance and simplifying the task of coordinating people who can assist. 

Another area where epidemic control requires a different approach is in the dissemination of information to the public. Diseases have the potential to spur fear at a visceral level. It is important to alert citizens from a trusted source and maintain regular updates. The use of multi-modal technology to promptly send a message to a phone, laptop, loudspeaker, digital TV, social media or any other connected device is critical to reach the masses, rather than relying on one type of technology, such SMS or text messages.

In the case of an outbreak, community leaders can also use networked crisis software to pinpoint who was in an area of high infection during a certain window of time and notify those citizens directly that they may have been exposed and to go to particular hospitals. 

Just as importantly, it must use authentication and encryption to secure all communication and comply with government security and privacy regulations. Careful control of information between responders and public health officials is essential. This content must be carefully secured, so that only fully-vetted and authorised communications from known, reliable resources are released to both the media and public.

Addressing the unexpected and keeping people safe

The rules for emergency preparedness are being re-written, influenced by new regulation and next-generation technologies and a changing world of threats. Governments and private organisations must be prepared for the unexpected, whether that is a cyber-attack, disease or natural disaster.  This recent epidemic in China reminds us once again how important it is to be able to react, inform, communicate and respond in real-time to contain an incident or take rapid action that will save lives.

Cities and governments around the world – or indeed, any organisation with a duty of care – may want to view these recent threats to public safety as a wake-up call to take a good look at the critical communication systems and processes they have in place to keep people safe.  


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