Is It a Crisis?

All organizations are vulnerable

The phrases critical communications and crisis communications are used interchangeably. However, they are synergistic building blocks. To understand both of these phrases, first take a look at the business objectives behind crisis communications. After doing this, there will be a scorecard for selecting a critical communication system. The scorecard will address Intelligibility, Interoperability, and several other “ilities” which should be considered.


All organizations are vulnerable to a crisis. Examples include Fukishima, BP Deepwater Horizon, Jack in the Box, WikiLeaks, and most recently the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Trying to identify potential crisis situations is not easy and easily avoided by the tyranny of the urgent. For example, in Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins’ book “Predictable Surprises” they describe a situation or circumstance in which avoidable crises are marginalized in order to satisfy economic and social policies. They define a predictable surprise as a problem that at least some people are aware of, is getting worse over time, and is likely to explode into a crisis eventually. The best way to prepare for a crisis situation is by conducting an all hazard risk, threat and vulnerability assessment to identify potential risks which can have a significant impact on the enterprise. If you do not prepare, you will incur more damage. Without adequate internal and external communications operational response will fail, stakeholders will react negatively, management of the incident will be noticed as incompetent, and the length of time to resolve the incident and return to normal will be of greater duration and exponentially more expensive.


Having been involved in numerous post incident reviews, there always seems to be one overarching issue that applies to critical communications breakdowns. These breakdowns always start with one or more people who needed to communicate something and, for one reason or another, were not heard. This could be inbound or outbound communications.

Detection and reporting of critical incidents require robust inbound communications. Inbound communications can come from local first responders, weather notification services, emergency management services, and most importantly from employees, visitors and other stakeholders. These folks should never be more than a few steps away from being able to report a problem. We cannot responsibly respond to a crisis situation if we are unaware that a crisis situation exists. As a caution do not disregard your employees and visitors as first responders. They have a vested interest in their safety and security and when properly trained and provisioned can be a force multiplier in rapid response and resolution to emerging events. What they need from you is the means to communicate.

Outbound communications are the communications we use to instantly notify, fire, police, crisis management teams, decision makers, employees, visitors, and stakeholders. Further, outbound communications facilitate cooperation for effective and efficient responses. Additionally, outbound crisis communication permits your crisis management team and first responders to organize an efficient response to contain the event and control panic.


So, what are the tools we need to put in the hands of the stakeholders?

Interoperability. Are you able to integrate voice and messaging into your core security systems such as access control and video? Do you have the systems or have you considered the systems which allow for two-way integrated mass communications? These include computer desktop technologies, mobile devices, public area devices which permit rapid communications such as campus open areas, parking areas, and public venues? Does your system leverage social media tools and applications?

Intelligibility. Do not install systems that cannot meet the need to hear, be heard and be understood within any situation. Benchmark this across all vendors. You will see a broad spectrum of audio capability. Many security executives have rued the day they deployed based on a response to an RFP, without testing this core capability.

There is nothing worse in a crisis situation than not being able to understand someone who is trying to communicate critical information. Have you considered the various factors which impact critical communications such as background noise, reverberation, distance and stress (such as someone who may be screaming)? Do your systems allow for intelligibility, clarity and articulation?

Portability of Data. Data and data analytics are crucial to any crisis event and should be considered in three contexts; before the crisis occurs, during and after.

We all know what failure in crisis communication looks like. All you have to do is tune in to any news outlet to quickly understand failure. We also know what success looks like. During the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino 14 people were killed, however more than 3,000 were saved. The success of the 3,000 was attributed to having a plan, communicating the plan, training the plan, and having the multifaceted layers of communication which facilitated an orderly and rapid evacuation while simultaneously notifying emergency first responders.

At the end of the day, if you considered the various crises which can impact your enterprise, planned and trained a response, and can clearly and intelligibly communicate between people across platforms to ensure the safety and security of your employees, visitors, and stakeholders while assuring the continued success of your organization, then when I watch the news will I see you as a success.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Security Today.

  • Environmental Protection
  • Occupational Health & Safety
  • Infrastructure Solutions Group
  • Spaces4Learning
  • Campus Security & Life Safety