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13 Feb 2015

The Scene: Making the Case for Fire Drills

Our next breakfast program on emergency communications couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

Last month, a perceived threat hit the WSU Spokane campus – where I work – and I was thrust into emergency communications mode.

Thankfully, the threat was taken care of in a reasonable amount of time, without incident. But my team and I learned some things about emergency preparedness, and although there were no communication hiccups, there were still lessons to take away.

Without providing too many details – I’m not allowed to, due to privacy and safety concerns – here’s what went down:

  • A perceived threat was made online that seemed to target our campus.
  • A person reported that threat to…somebody, I don’t know who, but soon a number of higher-ups were involved (again, can’t say what ones, but trust me, they’re good at what they do).
  • The communications team sent out a text-alert and email-alert to all students, staff and faculty telling them one of our buildings on campus was closed and the College of Pharmacy would cancel classes for that day.
  • Another text and email-alert was sent to students, staff and faculty after about 30 minutes or so once the perceived threat was taken care of by campus security, administration and local law enforcement.

Our communications to students, staff and faculty, as well as the media, was factual and brief. It told them all they needed to know:

  • There was a perceived threat.
  • The College of Pharmacy would cancel classes for that day.
  • The Pharmacy building would be closed for the day as well.

Once the perceived threat was over, we sent an updated text alert saying as much.

Here’s what we learned: Those fire drills we all did in elementary school do serve a purpose.

Even though the perceived threat was communicated correctly and the whole ordeal was over quickly, there were still things we needed to clean up – things the outside world doesn’t see.

First, some claimed to have not received the text alert. Further inspection of our software after the fact deemed this to be true. A chat with those involved ended in this being corrected.

Second, We have a protocol of who does what in situations like these. We have people assigned to communicate to various publics: campus personnel, students, surrounding universities, WSU’s Pullman campus, the media, etc. We also have various ways of doing so: text alerts, email alerts, phone calls, social media, website, etc.

We have backups to those people assigned to each task. The thing we don’t have in all cases, though, is a backup to the backup – and that was a problem in this particular case.

I am the lead on social media and web communications during an emergency or crisis. My coworker is a very capable backup. The problem? I was off campus at a meeting and my backup was home sick.


This was a problem, and luckily it was rectified soon, as I was summoned back to campus (I wasn’t too far away) and my backup could still be reached by phone, despite being home sick.

Lastly, the other minor issue was our text alert system. While the alerts went out in a timely manner, there was some rust we had to wear off when using our text alert software. We have training with this software, but we found out we need to practice more often.

This is where the fire drills come in. 

After all was said and done and we were able to evaluate how we did, we determined two major opportunities for improvement:

1. Practice using the text alert software once a month instead of once a quarter.

2. Have backups to the backups to the backups (and to those backups) in just about every communications avenue.

These can’t be done correctly without the proper training. My dad is a former B-52 pilot. He didn’t just fly when he needed to drop bombs somewhere. The vast majority of his flights were training flights so he could remain proficient so when the time arose to drop bombs, he and his crew were ready.

Writers don’t just write books and essays when they need to. They write things they never publish so they don’t forget how to write.

The lesson in all of this is that companies and organizations of all types and sizes need to be fully prepared and trained for an emergency. Too many people believe it’ll never happen to them. 

But then it does happen and if you are not prepared you open yourself and your organization to complaints and lawsuits, or worse.

So conduct those fire drills. You’ll be glad you did.

By Kevin Dudley, Spokane MarCom President