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How to Make a Crisis Communication Plan: Tips for Municipal Emergency Management Planning

By Marisa Pangaro

If you’re already working at a municipality, odds are you care greatly about public wellbeing and safety. Emergency management is an essential aspect of public safety, and your local government needs to have a communication plan in place to reach citizens and keep them safe in case of emergencies. 

Consider what governments across America have gone through when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. New Jersey local governments dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy similarly to how Texas local governments had to mitigate the fallout of their historic winter storms. But how did they handle those emergencies? How did they prioritize public safety and communications amid the chaos? 

This comprehensive guide will highlight all of the essential steps needed to forge a crisis communication plan for local government emergency management, explain the benefits of a crisis communication plan, and outline best practices for protecting citizens. 

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What Is A Crisis Communication Plan?

A government crisis communication plan is a strategic plan outlining how a local government will communicate with residents, media, government employees, and external partners during times of crisis or emergencies. 

Danger can arise when a community has no clear lines of communication during an emergency because residents may not know how to make the best decisions to keep themselves safe. The goal of this crisis communication plan is to provide clear and timely information to the public in order to effectively manage and mitigate the impact of any ongoing crisis affecting the community. 

Why Do Local Governments Need A Crisis Communication Plan?

Local governments often need a crisis communication plan more than government officials realize until it is too late. Crisis communication plans are meant to be organized in advance of a community emergency so citizens understand how to react and reach out to the government properly. 

Crisis communication plans are necessary for the following reasons: 

  • Information Disbursement: 

Timely and accurate information is crucial to be able to provide to the public in order to inform and guide citizens, emergency responders, and various government workers. A well-designed communication plan ensures that the right information reaches the right people in order to mitigate confusion and panic.

  • Maintaining Public Safety: 

A crisis such as a natural disaster, disease outbreak, or incidents like oil spills often cause public safety concerns. Your local government community safety strategy should also outline the communication plan, as it helps local governments provide clear instructions to residents on how to stay safe, evacuate if necessary, and take appropriate precautions when navigating community emergencies. Instruct citizens where they are permitted to go throughout an emergency and roads or areas that may be blocked off. 

  • Building Trust and Credibility: 

Consistent and transparent communication builds trust between the local government and its constituents. When citizens receive accurate and reliable information ahead of time, they are likely to believe in the competence and intentions of the government, to protect them even during the most confusing and challenging times. 

Consider this a critical component of effective local government communications.

  • Coordination and Collaboration: 

During a crisis, multiple agencies, organizations, and departments need to work together to mitigate devastation and provide safeguards for constituents. This communication plan will outline roles, responsibilities, and information sharing best practices, ensuring effective collaboration between all the different entities involved in managing the crisis.

Consider which government departments will need to communicate with each other most during a crisis, and highlight the importance to the workers in those departments. 

  • Preparing for Different Scenarios: 

The way a crisis is communicated significantly impacts public perception and how citizens will react. A well thought out communication plan helps local governments convey a sense of control, thereby managing the narrative and reducing the potential for negative backlash from the public. Prepare citizens before a disaster strikes by teaching them where to relocate if needed, how to get in touch with the government through report-a-concern software, and how first responders can be contacted for help. 

Learn more about Citizen Concern Reporting for your municipality. 

Key Steps To Creating A Crisis Communication Plan

Creating a crisis communication plan can be complex and requires much work on the part of local government officials. Here are the steps your government needs to take to create a crisis communication plan: 

1. Form A Contact List             

Once a crisis occurs or emergency breaks out, it's already too late to begin establishing contacts that will require emergency updates. Prepare for a potential crisis and organize contacts that will need to be updated before it’s too late. Consider who should receive critical information when an emergency occurs, and preemptively organize a contact list to rapidly alert community members and municipal workers of next steps. 

Utilizing government tech to notify constituents of an emergency will enable your citizens to opt-in to receive emergency alerts via text message, email, or voice messages. A government emergency notification system like this will aid your municipality in alerting and instructing citizens in a timely manner. 

Consider the contacts needed to respond right away when an emergency breaks out: 

  • Citizens

Alert all citizens of general emergencies in the locality so they can protect themselves, while also considering which citizens live closest to the crisis that may need extra attention from the government. 

  • Tourists to your community

It is imperative to remember your community may have outside visitors or tourists at the time of an emergency that are just as vulnerable to danger without the right instructions. 

  • Local Businesses

Alert local businesses of the consequences their businesses may face due to a community disaster and ensure government officials are prepared to mitigate the fallout a local business may have faced. 

  • Media Outlets 

Media outlets are instrumental in helping you communicate potentially life-saving directions to citizens, and often opt to produce their own updates regarding the fallout and recovery of disasters. Utilize this tool to reach citizens who may not have an emergency notification system enabled on their phones yet. 

These response teams are made up of community members that are educated on emergency preparedness and the community emergency response plan and can help respond in the wake of disaster. 

2. Establish Communication Channels With These Contacts

You’ve established who needs to be contacted in an emergency, after that you need to establish communication channels of how these contacts should be reached. Consider the following communication channels for local government: 

  • Ensure IT workers are prepared to update the government website

Ensure that members of your government IT staff are prepared to post emergency updates and alerts on your government social media accounts and website for all citizens, especially the most vulnerable citizens such as disabled community-members, to check at any time. The website may be a more straightforward option for citizens who didn’t opt to or realize they could sign up for emergency texts/emails/or call updates. 

Learn more about Improving Your Government Website Design and Ensuring Your Government Website Meets ADA Standards

  • Keep administration on the phones to receive calls 

Having a call center to answer emergency phone calls from concerned constituents goes a long way in ensuring citizens know best safety practices, have any questions answered, and citizen trust in local government can grow. 

  • Establish interdepartmental lines of communication

Various government departments will need to communicate during a crisis so they can collaborate on safety precautions, coordinate response efforts, and engage in disaster recovery planning. 

3. Forge A Disaster Mitigation Plan And Coordinate With Emergency Management Services

Natural disasters have been occurring at alarming and historic rates over the past decade, which increases the risk of natural disasters like flooding, hurricane, tornadoes, and wildfires affecting your community. Similarly to a crisis communications plan, a viable local emergency management plan should consider pre-disaster mitigation efforts, preparation of constituents and employees, the immediate response to a natural disaster, and a long term recovery plan. 

  • Emergency preparedness plans are broken down into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Emergency management services need to be privy to these plans in each phase, and even have access to the plan before a disaster strikes. 

4. Acquire Communication Infrastructure

Communication infrastructure is vital in preparing the public for the fallout of a crisis. 

  • Know how to communicate with the public:

    Make sure the public is also prepared to receive critical information and updates through established channels ahead of time. Most citizens check their cell phones and emails throughout the day, and would benefit from receiving mobile updates while some citizens, typically senior citizens in your community, may only be prepared to receive updates through media outlets like the news or your government website. 
  • Master internal communications across departments:

    prepare for interdepartmental government communications during an emergency with government management software solutions that make department-to-department messaging and collaboration simple. 
  • Utilize social media: 

    Plan to share critical information ahead of and in the wake of a disaster on social media as it is likely the most used and wide-reaching platform to deliver information to citizens. Utilize popular social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to get your messages in front of citizens.

    Consider GovPilot’s Guide on Social Media Strategy For Local Governments to learn more.  

5. Team Preparation

Hire volunteers and full time government staff that are committed to emergency management and trained to assist in disaster recovery efforts. There is no telling how devastating the negative impact of an emergency would be on your community, so having as many trained team members ready to respond as possible is vital. 

  • Educating your emergency management staff and Community Emergency Response Team on your disaster resilience plan ahead of time, as well as making the information available to them to reference at any time is vital. Ensure the emergency management team is knowledgeable about potential infrastructure issues your community could face due to disaster, and government technology solutions they can utilize in their repose efforts. 

Consider the following tech solutions that would benefit the emergency management team with crisis communications: 

6. Craft Government Emergency Management Messaging

Local government press releases are an important tool for getting messages out to the public and media about disasters because they are succinct, informational, and can be widely distributed to the public online in moments. Detail the current situation in your press release, along with warnings and best practices for citizens to protect their safety. 

The Benefits Of Incorporating Emergency Management Software Into Your Local Government 

Crisis prevention and response is one of the most vital times to utilize government management software. This government emergency management software provides countless benefits for both government workers and their workflows as well as citizens in your community. 

Here are a few of the ways emergency management software can benefit your locality: 

  • Enhance Community Resilience

The most pivotal aspect of emergency management is the ability to plan ahead to mitigate disasters before they happen. For local government officials and residents, proper preparation builds community resilience and removes uncertainty and confusion in the wake of an emergency. The likelihood of a speedy recovery for your community increases when recovery efforts are organized ahead of time and local infrastructure is designed ahead of time to be disaster resilient. 

Keeping residents informed is simple with a public facing GIS map. The GIS map enables constituents to easily view critical information about their surrounding environment such as flood zones, evacuation routes, contaminated sites, and the location of emergency services, like distribution sites, public shelters, hospitals, fire houses, and police departments. 

Various layers of your community can be displayed alongside collected GIS data, allowing government officials to decide which layers to display publicly or which to keep for internal analysis. The mail merge feature is also available with GovPilot’s GIS mapping technology which allows local governments to instantly pull lists of addresses that fall within a specific data layer (such as a flood map) in order to send mailings to impacted constituents.

  • Collect Data Essential for Resilience & Recovery

Well organized data can help your government make important decisions faster. Utilize GovPilot’s inventory tracking and fleet management modules to ensure your government is well supplied and equipment is in working order. 

Learn more about modernizing Fleet Management In Your Municipality

In the event of a disaster, track expenses that have been incurred across all departments in real-time, and generate a formatted account of expenses in just a few clicks before you are instantly ready to submit the data to FEMA for reimbursement.

With GovPilot’s government cloud-based platform that’s built on the Microsoft Azure gov cloud, records are easily updated, and are safely encrypted/stored in the cloud, even during an emergency situation to be accessible by staff from any device, at any time. This government software allows local officials to share communication plans to various departments, and gives government officials the option get vital work done from home to access critical information if need be. 

Read on for more information about best practices for Government data storage and the reasons that GovPilot partnered with Azure for its cloud storage

Mitigation Tips For Preventing Disasters

Disasters can come in many forms, such as tornadoes, wildfires, floods, landslides, and winter storms, all of which require different preventative measures to safeguard against their potential devastating effects. 

Here are some key mitigation tips for preventing different natural disasters: 

1. Tornadoes

  • Hold training sessions and tornado drills for community members: it is critical that community members of all ages are aware of what to do and where to go when a tornado is incoming.
  • Build a tornado response team: Build a team of volunteers that are trained to respond to tornadoes by registering community volunteers in advance for the response team to rescue people and animals caught in the storm and trapped in the debris. 

Consider these tornado mitigation & response strategy tips. 

2. Wildfires

  • Regularly clear brush and debris: dead trees, bushes, and twigs are the fuel that keep a wildfire spreading. Embers blown from a fire can travel for hundreds of yards and quickly spark a new fire if it lands on dry material. 

  • Notify Constituents of Procedures: Constituents should be prepared to evacuate their homes and businesses at a moment's notice, and be made aware of pre-established evacuation routes and emergency shelter locations now.

  • Educate and Train Constituents: Municipalities should use every opportunity to inform constituents of best practices to mitigate fire hazards. Remind residents to regularly clear gutters, place fire-resistant landscape buffers around their building, and keep combustible material such as firewood, covered with wire mesh to reduce fire risk.

Read on for more information on local government wildfire mitigation & disaster planning

3. Flooding

  • Establish flood zones: Flooding often occurs in the same areas repeatedly, although sometimes flooding can happen in random or new areas. Make sure that your community members are aware of commonly flooded places to avoid in the case of a flooding disaster. 

  • Use Floodplain Management Software: Municipalities must be able to report to their state and to FEMA, updates and status of any infrastructure located in a flood zone, and must require permitting for any building construction, or possible hazards on these properties.

  • Create flood water diversions: if an area is known for floodwater, establishing flood water diversions like dams can store water and divert it to stop the spread to neighborhoods, businesses, or streets.

Read on for more information on local government flood mitigation and disaster planning.

4. Landslides

  • Pay attention to storm water drainage: Intense rainfall can often cause landslides,  continually monitoring water drainage in your neighborhood and considering opportunities to make improvements will be critical in preventing flood and landslide damage.

  • Build mitigation structures: Building debris pathways to divert water, retaining walls, fissures, and grouting rock joints will keep local buildings in high risk areas safe and stable. 

Consider these tips for local government landslide mitigation. 

5. Winter storms

  • Be Prepared With Modern Fleet Management:
    Enforce proper government fleet management before snowfall even begins to ensure your local government is prepared to dispatch the necessary amount of snow plows, salt supplies, and salt trucks that will support your city against a winter storm.
  • Post a List of Important Must Haves:
    Create a guide of all the best items to have in your home during a winter storm, and the best ways to stock up to prepare for severe weather, incase constituents are stuck inside for an extended period of time. 

Learn more about local government winter preparedness & mitigation

Embrace Government Software For Better Emergency Management And Citizen Communications

Now is the time for your local government to put citizens first and prioritize community safety with an emergency crisis communication plan. Crisis communication planning in government has never been more important. Embrace government technology solutions that will improve citizen-to-government communications and allow local government officials to stay in contact with citizens throughout a crisis, instructing citizens on how to navigate the emergency. Ensure that your local government is ready to support citizens when it matters most. 

With GovPilot, your local government can save time through cloud-based software solutions and automated workflows that will save your government workers time in responding to a crisis, collect valuable data, and improve the safety of constituents.

Begin digitizing and safeguarding your community today. Book a 15-minute consultation with GovPilot! 

Crisis Communication Plan FAQs

  • What is a crisis communication plan?

A crisis communication plan is a strategy local governments can implement into their communities to inform citizens and government employees how to respond in the wake of an emergency. Crisis communication plans detail communication channels between citizens and their government, preventative measures and best practices to protect infrastructure, prevent government cyber attacks, and outline how the government plans on protecting citizens. 

  • Why do municipalities need a plan for crisis communications?

There is never a more unorganized and hectic time for a community than during an emergency. That is why establishing a plan for communications during a crisis is vital; citizens lean on this communication during emergencies for support from their government, guidance on what to do next, instructions on how to evacuate if need be, and peace of mind that their government is there for them. 

  • How does government software help with emergency management?

Government software solutions utilize technology that makes it possible for local governments to plan, organize and equipped citizens with the tools they need to safely navigate a community emergency. GovPilot’s government software allows governments to maintain some control during an emergency by establishing government/citizen communication channels and sending out important notifications to citizens regarding any dangers they may face. 

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