Call Center Crisis Management: Planning for Disaster
By Andrea King-Smith, Strategic CSM, Customer Engagement Lead
As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.”
911 dispatchers spend every day responding to emergencies. Their job is to triage a situation and provide appropriate responders to the scene. But are they prepared to face a catastrophic event like a mass shooting, a Category 5 hurricane, or even a six-foot snowfall that shuts down an entire city (think Buffalo, NY in November 2022)? Disasters happen, but within the PSAP, failure is not an option.
As a former 911 dispatcher for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police in the Communications Department Bureau, I’ve seen my share of disasters and learned a thing or two about how to prepare for most potential disasters. The best way to plan for a catastrophic event is to create a well-defined ERP (Emergency Response Protocol) for the Communications Center. Just having it is not enough. You need to publish it in multiple locations, provide thorough training to your staff on how to implement it, and have frequent practice drills, enacting the plan so that when a real catastrophic event occurs, your staff is prepared and ready to respond as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible.
Let’s talk about the basics of building a successful Communications Center ERP. First, you really have to assess all the elements of responding to a potentially catastrophic event:
Who do you need to notify of this emergency and in what order? Which teams are rendering aid (e.g., SWAT, FEMA, Police, Negotiators, ICS(Incident Command System), etc.)? And which teams are managing community outreach – such as the PIO (Public Information Officer). Does your staff know how to raise the issue up the chain of command? Communication protocols are critical in the management of a catastrophic event. Do you have standard statements for when families or reporters call into the 911 system?
What are your staffing requirements during the event and how will you staff later shifts? If you work on an A/B/C shift rotation, make sure you have a version of this rotation dedicated to emergencies, so you can ramp up the needed shift during the emergency and still have staff reserves ready to relieve them at the next shift. This will help ensure coverage for the event, and reduce staff burnout in the days and weeks following.
Does your team have designated roles in the event of an emergency? Do they know what those roles are? If the shift commander is the person that regularly practices the emergency protocols, and they are on vacation the day an incident occurs, does the next person in line know how to take action? Who is going to make contact with those responding in for the emergency on their day off? Is it necessary to track overtime?
Does your call center have a clearly defined system for identifying whether callers are reporting from a safe location; not safe and hiding; unsafe and at risk? Are they providing critical scene management information to first responders (e.g visual confirmation of shooter)? Can you track all inbound callers? Do you have a defined message and call to action for families seeking information about their loved ones?
Does your dispatch have an orderly system for triaging aid based on life-threatening risk; injuries, casualties, and crowd management? After your first responders have cleared the scene and removed the threat, do you have a plan to find and communicate with people in hiding to inform them it is safe?
Can you remain within your current call-center location? If not, do you have a backup center that is secure? Do you have a clearly defined CoOP (Continuity of Operations Plan) if you are dealing with a natural disaster that requires you to relocate your operations? Does your team know how to implement it? If your main location is threatened by a natural disaster, your backup location should be far enough away to remain safe. It shouldn’t be the building up the block.
What equipment do you need for call-center portability should you need to move locations? You want to make sure the most critical components of your operation can quickly start-up within your backup location. If your main call center is in the eye of a hurricane and buried underwater, you can’t go there to pick up the radios, keys, and laptops. As part of your ERP drills and practice, you also need to go to this backup location with some frequency to ensure everything is working and in order, so you don’t have to troubleshoot during prime time. It can’t hurt to run a 24-hour rotation in the backup location from time to time just to get your staff accustomed to it.
Call Center Portability
The best way to keep your call center portable is to maintain it in the cloud. With a cloud-based call center, your staff has anytime/anywhere access to critical resources. Someone that is outside of the affected area can go to the new location, set up the call center, and direct staff to report to the new location.
If your servers are in the main call center location and it’s now underwater, you have no redundancy. Using cloud technology ensures that you have the redundancy to back up your operation in the face of a catastrophic event. This way your operators and dispatchers can operate from a safe location, with technology that looks and feels exactly the same as the tech stack they use every day.
It is critical that you have clear and concise ERP documentation. Write your plan. Review it with every single stakeholder. Make sure you have multiple printed and laminated copies of the ERP throughout the call center. Keep digital copies in easily accessible locations within your organization’s internal drives or cloud instance. Everyone should be able to find it and refer to it during an emergency.
Create a training program that teaches all staff what the plan is and specifically how to implement it. Make sure all shifts have gone through the training, and have practiced drills on a regular basis. Also ensure every new employee goes through ERP training so that the entire staff knows what to do, and where to find critical information during an emergency.
The most important piece of advice I can give to PSAPs that are faced with a catastrophic event is that while the event may be over in a few hours, your people are not immediately okay. They likely won’t be okay for a long time. You have to actively monitor their behavior for signs of stress and emotional distress and plan to proactively support their mental health needs and PTSD recovery.
Make sure your PSAP is prepared for catastrophic events in whatever form they take. Build a well-documented plan that covers every possible eventuality. Make sure your notifications list is updated frequently and you host training sessions and drills with regularity. Build your backup center on the opposite side of your jurisdiction from your main call center, and ensure that you have a cloud-native platform that is portable to go with you in whatever location your team ends up working. And don’t forget – your staff will need recovery and support time too.
Carbyne (Headquartered in New York, NY) is a leading global provider of cloud-native mission-critical contact center solutions. Carbyne is one of the largest rich-data providers for emergency response centers, delivering over 250M data points per year all in a unified platform. Our technologies enable emergency contact centers and select enterprises to connect with callers as well as connected devices via highly secure communication channels without needing to download a consumer app. With a mission to redefine emergency collaboration and connect the dots between people, enterprises and governments, Carbyne provides a unified cloud native solution that provides live actionable data that can lead to more efficient and transparent operations and ultimately save lives. With Carbyne, every person counts.