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Crisis preparedness: best practices for government employees

June 26, 2024
  • By: Robert Johnson, President, Sedgwick Government Solutions

Historic weather events are on the rise. There were 28 weather and climate disasters in 2023, surpassing the previous record of 22 in 2020, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Experts predict 2024 to be on track with these numbers, if not worse. 

With the continuously evolving nature of climate-related threats and natural disasters, government agencies need to match with continuously updated crisis preparedness plans.

In this context, preparedness refers to the steps that should take place prior to an incident. Advance work is essential to coordinating an effective crisis response, especially for making sure leaders are prepared to respond with empathy and care, not just for other government employees but for the public as well. 

Consider the following best practices for every step of preparedness planning: 

Assess and mitigate risks

The evolving hazard landscape means emergency managers need to plan differently when assessing disaster risk and community resilience. Thorough advance preparation helps managers to fully understand and process all the levels of risk involved with each type of disaster and adequately plan for success in managing those risks. 

Risk assessment preparedness includes taking time to assess both vulnerabilities and hazards for each disaster scenario. Preparedness also includes risk mitigation – taking proactive steps to mitigate the vulnerabilities and hazards that have been identified. For government workers, this could include mapping and auditing building infrastructure, retrofitting buildings with new safety technology, installing emergency power systems, or securing infrastructure that could become a hazard during risky weather conditions. 

Risk assessments, and the associated preparedness and risk mitigation strategies, may vary depending on different types of natural disasters. As a result, leaders may need to rely on different resources, information sources, external communication channels, or regulatory requirements depending on the hazard. 

Risk mitigation planning may also look different depending on the government agency and its focus. Whether the team serves state, local, tribal or territorial governments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offersplanning resources and training materials to help leaders follow guidelines and stay compliant for a range of hazard and disaster scenarios.

Communication strategies are key

When a disaster happens, every minute counts. Clear communication is crucial when time is of the essence.

Government agencies preparing communication strategies prior to an event should consider how different audiences should receive different messages, and tailor their strategy accordingly. 

Internal communication to employees and contractors should be succinct and establish clear protocols for disaster response. Plan to utilize multiple channels of communication, such as email, text message, and office intercom to ensure messages reach everyone. Internal response can and should be practiced as part of preparatory planning – conduct employee training and drills to ensure everyone knows what to do and who to contact in an emergency. 

For government workers whose responsibility includes communicating emergency information with members of the public, including travelers and tourists, separate communication strategies should be prepared in advance. Public communication often involves coordinating with local media and public information officers to disseminate information, so preparation includes ensuring those media and officer contacts are well-established. 

Review FEMA’s 2021 peer-reviewed research on improving public messaging for additional tips and insights for disaster and emergency preparedness. This report includes communication best practices for a variety of natural disasters and includes interesting datapoints from the survey results. For example, it found that the National Weather Service (NWS) was specifically seen by the public as a trusted source of information. These research-backed recommendations can improve communications specific to a certain weather event or hazard.

Signal the way to evacuation and shelter-in-place

Even with thorough preparation and consistent training, the most effective emergency responses have all the steps clearly marked out. Preparation for evacuation or shelter-in-place should heavily focus on making the process seamless and easy to follow for everyone when it’s time to respond.

For evacuations, routes to safety and safe assembly points should be clearly marked and easy to find. Practice in locating these routes and points should be part of regular training activities by employees. 

Evacuation is not advised for certain disasters, such as tornadoes, so if this is identified as a potential hazard during a risk assessment, safe areas to shelter-in-place should be identified within the building. Ensure these areas are stocked with necessary supplies, including water and first aid kits.

Many government agencies admit frequent visitors at their sites, so procedures for accounting for and evacuating visitors are important to consider during preparatory planning. Maintaining accurate visitor logs to track building guests is not only a security measure but helps to account for visitors if a disaster happens.

At all points, whether evacuating or sheltering in place, remember that inclusivity and accessibility are essential to getting every person, at all ability levels, to safety. Planners should solicit feedback from their teams and involve people at all levels of their organization or agency to get a full understanding of inclusivity and accessibility needs. Consider consulting outside resources such as advocacy organizations or FEMA’s draft guidance for people-first emergency planning for additional best practices. 

Lead – and care – by example

Natural disasters and hazardous events are stressful, but advanced preparation and training makes the processes and procedures more muscle memory than manual reading. Plan each step from a place of care and empathy for everyone involved to account for physical as well as emotional safety, so that government employees can lead the response by example. 

Government workers, especially those in public-facing roles, can’t coordinate a strong response to the public until they can take care of themselves, making the preparedness of government facilities and personnel even more essential. It’s like the memorable airline safety protocol: put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others. 

Having a thought-out and disciplined disaster response plan allows government employees to do their most important job of serving the public in their moments of greatest need.