NYPD Inspector John Codiglia and his megaphone at work

Efficacy is the power to produce effect and the concept is especially important for emergency messaging. With emergency notification and warning, the desire of the sender is to empower and embolden the recipient with information, directions, and guidance in order to produce an effect.

With the proliferation of mass messaging systems capable of sending thousands of text messages, emails, and phone calls per minute, many jurisdictions and agencies have invested significant budget, time, and effort into procuring and installing these systems. While many agencies and jurisdictions have trained their staff on how to use mass messaging systems to send a message, few have provided training on what to say and how to say it.

Below are a few quick lessons on how to increase the efficacy of your emergency messages:

Lesson #1: Speed Can Trump Accuracy during Emergencies
The Virginia Tech massacre taught us how important it is to send emergency notification quickly following an act of violence or incident. As the Department of Education reported, “Because Virginia Tech failed to notify its students and staff of the initial shootings on a timely basis, thousands continued to travel on campus, without a warning of the events at the residence hall.”

On the day of the shooting, VA Tech sent an urgent email saying “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.” By the time that email reached students, all of the gunman’s victims had been already shot. Clearly, speed is important in providing warning. The problem is that emergency messages and warnings are inherently different to craft, especially in the middle of a hectic or stressful situation. Therefore, I recommend that all jurisdictions and agencies develop emergency notification protocols including pre-scripted (or “canned”) message templates.

As a lesson learned post-VA Tech, St. John’s University in New York had an incident of a male carrying a gun on campus. The University issued a text alert. Their text message was sent soon after the first report of the gunman: “From public safety. Male was found on campus with a rifle. Please stay in your buildings until further notice. He is in custody, but please wait until the all-clear.” According to the Associated Press, “At St. John’s, the [text] ‘messages were sent so quickly that a student who helped subdue the suspect felt his cell phone vibrate with the information while he was restraining the gunman’”.

Lesson #2: Don’t Say Please and Thank You
Emergency text messages should not be overly friendly. In the St. John’s University example, the school used the word ‘please’ twice. Using polite language such as please and thank you may sound appealing, but it can also send the wrong message. Recipients should feel instructed and compelled to follow instruction. Asking recipients to ‘please’ do something can sometimes imply that the instruction is optional. For the urgent situations requiring emergency text messaging, there can be no misunderstanding that instructions are not optional.

Lesson #3: When to Use Jargon…
Emergency managers should refrain from using institutional jargon. “Shelter-in-place” is appropriate guidance if the school has trained all students in shelter-in-place procedures and the phrase is understood. If the population receiving guidance is not familiar with emergency management jargon, it is more helpful to ask for students to simply stay indoors rather than add to confusion with institutional jargon. A message to go into lock-down may not be understood or followed as well as a message instructing students to close and lock windows and doors and await further instruction.

Lesson #4: Avoid Emotive Language
Emotive language is language that conveys emotion. When describing the incident in an emergency message, do not make unfounded conclusions or use emotive words. For example, “Explosion on campus” is more acceptable than “Terrorism strikes home”, the former explains more and assumes less. It is not necessary or helpful to send alerts theorizing as to whether an incident is a terrorist plot or an accident or otherwise. Sending a message with the notice “this incident does not appear to be terrorism at this time” takes up precious space in an emergency message that may be only read quickly under stress by the recipient. It is always more helpful to issue guidance rather than speculation.

Lesson #5: Include Guidance and Instruction with Every Emergency Message
In response to the outcry by parents and students after the Virginia Tech shooting, some emergency managers or school administrators may be inclined to think of emergency messages as a panacea: simply issue a emergency text message and absolve the school of potential backlash from a mishandled incident. The alert system must not be used to gradually shift the responsibility of handing an incident onto those affected by the incident. In other words, just because recipients are aware of an incident, does not enable them to become their own emergency managers, able to adequately judge risk and protect themselves in the proper fashion. Alerts should be viewed as a tool and as a means to an end, not an end itself. As part of a comprehensive emergency management system, emergency alerts should be used in conjunction with shelter-in-place and evacuation training and drills, so that when incidents occur, the community is able to respond confidently.

While the five lessons above are helpful, agencies and jurisdictions need to invest in developing emergency notification protocols specific to their intended audience. Being sensitive to the age, socioeconomic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds of the intended audience can have an impact of how well the message is understood and whether the message achieves its desired result. While emergency notification systems are clearly a useful tool, it must be used discriminatingly and with great forethought. When seconds count and lives are in danger, the right information communicated in the  proper manner can make the difference between life and death.