What Crisis Communicators Can Learn from Emergency Dispatchers

“911…What is your emergency?” The dispatcher calmly gathers information, encouraging the caller to use all their senses… seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and avoiding assumptions. They need to quickly comprehend the situation but not react to the caller’s perceptions.

The dispatcher (communicator) will try to get the caller to paint the picture of the situation and if there are gaps in the painting, it could be easy to fill in gaps of missing information with assumptions. Typically, the human brain will use its own experiences to fill in gaps which could lead to misinformation or inaccurate details and in the case of emergency personnel, create potentially dangerous situations.

Professional communicators encounter many of the same issues when receiving and delivering communication on a daily basis and even more serious, in crisis situations. It becomes easy to react to the information with preconceived notions rather than ask more questions and take the time to gather more data on the situation through other sources.

Granted, in a crisis situation, gathering data from multiple sources in the very beginning of a crisis may be difficult, but this is where keeping emotions from blurring the facts will keep messaging clear.

Where does the picture have gaps and where situational communication can lead to snags in a clear image? Rich Gasaway with Situational Matters lays out several key areas where emergency personnel have communication barriers very similar to professional communicators:

Biases: Pre-existing thoughts and relationships immediately creep into conversations and our thoughts. As a communicator, you must maintain a ‘clean slate’ in your mind and write down the facts and ask only single directional questions. If your bias against the message delivery is beyond manageable, ask another person to sit in on the call and only ask questions that relate to the issue on hand.

Perceptions: While working in the energy industry, I would take calls from our field representatives who were checking well sites in western North Dakota, home to wildlife and plenty of open spaces. I received a very frantic call from a field man who had just encountered a landowner on an ATV with a shotgun over the steering wheel. While his concern was valid and the first question I asked was to determine he was safe, it soon became clear the landowner was out checking cattle pasture fences and doing a bit of pheasant hunting. The field man was in no danger, but reacting to perceptions could have led to a greater situation and a greater danger to the company’s reputation.

Attributions: Only list the information that can be sourced first hand. ‘He said/she saw” type of answers are not valid in communication and can lead to misdirection in any situation. Most of us have learned about forms of attributions through “the telephone game” we play as kids.

Relationships/Trust: The communicator has to put the relationship aside and trust every item that comes in is being honestly delivered. This does not give you a license to engage the crisis team with every call. Before a communicator delivers the message, it must be verified and if possible, in crisis situations, verified by multiple parties before announced.

Hierarchy: I was involved with a very difficult crisis and the current manager was not the acting incident commander, but insisted on being in the situational room and directing certain professionals to do tasks that were part of their normal jobs but in crisis situations, were given to others. This situation became very difficult for the employees and, after one day, the manager was gently asked to leave the room and was briefed on a regular basis. It can become very difficult for an employee to ignore the request of superiors, but in many situations, staying in the correct lane avoids more confusion and communication errors.

Cultural differences: While it may be a bit easier to recognize the difficulties in communicating between global cultural differences, we cannot ignore the variances between offices and even between teams of people. Communication expectations, especially in a crisis, need to be simple and clear. Report the facts and what you know for certain. Questions should not be perceived as an insult to knowledge but as a driver for clarification.

Source Value: As communicators, whether we want to admit it, we can find ourselves believing, or not believing, a message based solely on how well we know the sender of the message and how much we value their knowledge. Does this person have enough credibility to be trusted? How well do I know this person? Do I like this person? Do I respect this person? We judge the messenger so we trust (or don’t trust) the message.

Emotions: The human response to a crisis is to feel something. Empathy, sympathy, anger or concern. In that short time where our emotions flood in, the message may be lost. Train yourself to stay calm until time allows for emotion.

There is also a problem of receiving too much information. The brain can only filter a small bit of information, emotion and other factors as listed above create barriers to accurate memories of all the critical information.

All information is important, but the key will be our ability to decipher the critical information at the right time with a check on how the situation is affecting our ability to do the job. Much the same as emergency dispatchers, communicators need to question, observe and obtain the information needed to determine an appropriate course of action.