Effective disaster response activities rely on flexible communications and information systems that provide a common operating picture to emergency management/response personnel and their affiliated organizations. Properly planned, established, and applied communications enable the dissemination of information among command and support elements and, as appropriate, cooperating agencies and organizations. Establishing and maintaining this communications plan is vital to a successful disaster response program.
When developing a communications plan for your disaster response program, it is important to develop an internal communications process so that all who “need to know” are informed. For example, create “groups” in your e-mail address book and copy others who need to be added to a specific communication.
Answering the following questions will assist with the development of a thorough and inclusive plan.
- What does your organizational chart look like?
- Does your behavioral health organization have an Incident Command set up?
- How does disaster behavioral health fit into that plan?
To ensure that all staff members understand the requirements for maintaining a successful disaster response program, consider implementing the following:
- Create a calendar that designates the dates that required reports are due.
- Schedule periods of time to gather the appropriate data.
- Develop outlines and drafts of the reports so that you have time to gather feedback from other key staff as well as approval from those higher up the organizational chain.
- Ensure that all staff members know who needs to approve all your processes on reports and any external communications.
Review the Incident Command section of the National Incident Management System (PDF | 2.7 MB) with key staff, so that when communicating with the state/territory/tribal emergency management department you know what their terms for responding to the event mean. The most applicable terms to a behavioral health response provider would include understanding whether your team members are:
- Assigned: Performing active functions
- Available: Ready for immediate assignment
- Out-of-service: Not ready for assigned or available status
How should you refer to your team members? Are they:
- A single resource: For example, one mental health agency designated as lead
- A task force: A group of responders with different tasks such as assessment, public education, or individual counseling or
- A strike team: The crisis counseling workforce
Identify the liaison from within your agency who will communicate with the Incident Command representative for the current disaster. Know the chain of command within the Incident Command System (ICS) and within which section your liaison will report (e.g., the Planning, Operations or Logistics functions). While the Planning section is most often where behavioral health fits in the ICS, behavioral health services are not usually identified in the general structure and may fall under different functions in different ICS structures that are developed for each disaster. Additionally, behavioral health services may report to one function, but may assist another. For example, behavioral health professionals may be called upon to consult with the information officer in developing and delivering public messages during an incident while reporting to the Planning Section Chief.
Example of Where Behavioral Health May Fit in the Incident Command System
FEMA, Emergency Management Institute. (n.d.). Incident Command System Resource Center.
This resource center website has links to training materials, job aids, checklists, and helpful links for assisting disaster response programs.
Working with other agencies and organizations during and after a disaster can be challenging. To ensure that your disaster response program is working as efficiently as possible with others, consider holding an interagency response meeting on a routine basis, so that you know what agencies are conducting what kind of response activities and avoid duplication unless absolutely necessary. Most communities develop a disaster-specific Unmet Needs Roundtable, in which organizations, agencies, and disaster response programs work collaboratively to determine how donated funds and other resources can be used most effectively to support disaster-affected individuals, families, and other groups. This is especially important in planning for long-term, sustainable recovery from disaster-caused needs. Consider having representation at the Unmet Needs Roundtable, so that you can inform and adjust your needs assessment, staffing, and outreach strategy accordingly wherever possible.
New York Disaster Interfaith Services. (n.d.) Unmet Needs Roundtable.
This website provides information about Unmet Needs Roundtables and the role of survivors, donors, and disaster response organizations in the recovery of disaster-affected communities.
The NVOAD serves as a forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response and recovery—to help disaster survivors and their communities.
For more information on media in a disaster response program, please see the media messaging section of this toolkit.