The Single Most Important Thing We Can Learn from the Ottawa Lockdown

Last Wednesday’s events in Ottawa – the deadly shooting of a soldier at the War Memorial, the violent showdown with the shooter inside Centre Block of Canada’s Parliament, and the all-day manhunt around the hotel, shopping centre, and area surrounding Parliament Hill – put a spotlight on everything from national security, international politics, and mental health to public safety protocols, heroism, and PR crisis communications. All important topics that will no doubt be analyzed and discussed intensely in the weeks ahead.

But there’s one thing that’s not been talked about enough; something that reveals itself every time an unfortunate event like this occurs – as it did with the Boston Marathon bombing andthe Moncton manhunt, during the Ontario ice storm last winter and the southern Alberta floods last spring, and even currently with the potential threat of an Ebola outbreak.

The common thing with each of these major lockdown, shelter-in-place, evacuation, or quarantine situations is the crucial need to quickly locate, alert, and inform your dispersed people.

Communication is the single most important thing.

With efficient communication you can confirm people’s status, relay vital unfolding news, and mobilize others to help.

Whether it’s your family and friends, your office colleagues and workforce-at-large, or your stakeholders (eg. schools alerting parents, residents in a flood plain, etc.), and regardless of whether it’s to find them, to check to see if they are ok, to alert them of an emergency, to inform them of what to do or where to go (or not go), or to rally volunteers for assistance, simple communication with dispersed groups is critical.

It’s important of course because our human relationships are important.

It’s important because so much of our effort in an emergency is directed at locating and allocating people. First response, ERPs, and crisis communications all need people to be mustered in some form or another.

It’s also important because lockdowns paralyze large populations with inactivity and fear of the unknown. Offices shut down, stores close, schools don’t teach, and hospitals and clinics can’t properly tend patients, and government grinds to a stop. The business continuity costs are high.

And yet, time after time, we see organizations caught flat-footed; scrambling to find phone numbers to call manually or publishing to public channels information that should be kept internal.

Dispersed communications is the sort of thing that many organizations only think about at the time of a crisis, when it’s too late. But it’s the sort of thing that requires a little forethought, investment, and set-up beforehand.

There’s no excuse in 2014 for organizations not to have some sort of dispersed communication system in place for their teams. Call-trees, command centre alerts, and mobile internal communications tools of various types all exist. RallyEngine, which is a web-based dashboard and a mobile app, was designed for ease and versatility.

It’s not futuristic technology. It’s simply harnessing the smart part of your smartphone.

We learned following the 2013 Calgary Flood and State of Emergency that only 19% of downtown organizations with over 100 people could actually reach their people. A year and a half later, Ottawa organizations probably weren’t much better – when at the very least…

  • Every MP, whether barricaded in a caucus room or not, should have been alerted that there’s an incident, informed of what’s transpiring, and provided an easy way to confirm their status without publicly disclosing it or their whereabouts.
  • Every CEO in the surrounding office towers should have been able to activate a direct channel to her/his staff, whether local or elsewhere, to advise them to stay put, keep away from windows, or work from home.
  • Every parent in Ottawa should have been notified that their school-aged kids were safe, that classes were still in session, and that homeward buses were (or were not) still running.

If last week’s terrible events highlight anything actionable it’s that even companies and organizations that congregate daily can very quickly become scattered. And when they do, efficiently communicating with these people at these moments becomes the most important thing in the world. So be ready.

(Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

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