Your organization’s ability to minimize loss during a crime or disaster hinges largely on the strength of your emergency communications. Those, in turn, hinge on how well those communications play with human behavior.

With that in mind, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) partnered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to publish a report on the matter, focusing on how people process information and make decisions during emergencies. The report, “General Guidance on Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings,” was based on the review of 162 literature sources from numerous social science and engineering disciplines, and offers guidance for improving human response to emergency alerts.

First Impulse: Decision-Making, Not Panic

First, it’s worth noting that the outdated notion that emergency alerts lead to panic is now thoroughly debunked. Studies tell us that instead of freaking out, people who’ve just been told they’re at risk go into decision-making mode, and depriving them of information can open the door to tremendous harm, as was the case with the Virginia Tech shooting.

Specific to emergencies, research shows this is the mental process we go through when first presented with a warning:

  • We perceive the emergency cue.
  • We pay attention to it.
  • We must understand the information.
  • We must feel the incident or information is a credible threat.
  • We must personalize the threat (e.g., what does this mean for me?)
  • We search for a plan of action.
  • We identify and assess options, then choose one.
  • We determine the need for immediate action.

Barriers to Effective Emergency Communications

As you can guess, certain barriers can interrupt each stage of this mental process, delaying people’s responses. Those barriers, in direct correlation with the above steps, include:

  • Perception (recipient didn’t see or hear the alert)
  • Attention (recipient perceived but didn’t pay attention to the alert. Maybe he/she’s distracted or habituated to those emergency cues)
  • Comprehension (untrained individuals, children, non-native speakers, those with a cognitive impairment, different cultural background, or under stress may not understand your message)
  • Believe the information (source is vital)
  • Personalization of information (recipient is optimistic and doesn’t think harm will come to him/her)
  • Protective action (physical impairment, environmental conditions, blocked routes, other people not taking action can all inhibit an adequate response)

Strategies to Overcome Barriers

>> Alerts first, warning message next

The report advises issuing an alert first, separate from the warning message, to gain people’s attention and let them know a warning will follow. One example would be a pulsating signal (visual and/or audible) followed by just a moment of silence before the warning begins.

>> Message content

An effective warning message is one that is:

  • Specific
  • Consistent (with cues from the event and with other messages about the same event)
  • Certain
  • Clear
  • Accurate

It should convey:

  • Source of the message
  • What people should do, when, and why
  • Where the emergency is taking place

>> Multiple messages

“Anticipate the need to write more than one emergency message,” the report advises. Subsequent messages can clarify instructions or update previous warnings when conditions have changed.

>> Dissemination across multiple channels

If you want to reach your targeted audiences, you’ll have to layer multiple channels to disseminate your messages, including visual, audible, and even tactile means. Varying your communication vehicles and formats is the only way to reach all recipients the instant you issue an emergency alert.

“It is important for message providers to understand the messaging needs of their [audience] in order to design an emergency communications system with the appropriate technology… to reach all sub-groups” when every second counts, the report reads.

Whatever happens, you don’t want a tragedy on your shoulders because someone didn’t receive, understand or believe your crisis communications.

Read the full report here.