Hurricane preparedness and effective communication

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background. U.S. Coast Guard photo

 

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Ford

 

Last year there were no major Atlantic hurricanes, but based on historical trends, the likelihood of that repeating in 2014 is extremely low. It is imperative that Coast Guard commands in coastal regions prepare their personnel for such an event.

When preparing for hurricanes, or any significant weather event, a critical component to the planning process is ensuring information can be effectively communicated prior to, during, and post event. Moreover, commands must be able to efficiently pass the information regardless of the time of day. Most standard operating procedures for passing information during non-duty hours are grossly inefficient. Too many rely on “phone trees”. This cumbersome evolution can take hours and have many opportunities to break down (we all remember the children’s game of “operator”). One solution which greatly improves the dissemination of important information is the the Coast Guard’s newly adopted mass notification system – The Alert and Warning System (AWS). This system is designed for the exclusive alerting of Coast Guard members (active duty, civilian, selected reserve, contractors, and non-appropriated fund (NAF) employees). The Coast Guard refers to this capability as AWS Enterprise (AWS-E).

AWS-E is a robust mass notification system which alerts Coast Guard members via multiple devices which include email, text messaging, phone [text-to-voice], pager, and fax. Since replacing the Coast Guard’s Emergency Notification System as the organization’s mass notification system of record this past year, AWS-E has flourished in providing Coast Guard commands a quick and efficient means of relaying important weather and emergency response information to their personnel. AWS-E can target Coast Guard members based on geographic or physical location, rank, department identification number, etc.

The harsh winter of 2014 afforded many commands the opportunity to test AWS-E and better understand its capabilities. Lt. Michael Cavanagh, Chief Contingency Planning & Force Readiness at Sector Long Island Sound, conveyed how he relied on AWS-E this past winter to inform personnel of the unit’s operational status when winter weather affected his region. “With our Sector area of responsibility being so spread out over a large geographical area, the ability to target specific personnel based off their geographical location was invaluable in ensuring that appropriate information was reaching the correct people, said Cavanagh.” He went on to further convey how his unit historically relied on passive notification methods such as updating websites, calling into phone-lines, etc. According to Cavanagh, “Early and rapid notifications made possible by AWS-E ensured that employees did not put themselves into harm’s way by trying to get to their worksites amidst adverse weather conditions.”

Car snow pic

Car snow pic

Lt. Bradley Hanover, deputy comptroller, Coast Guard Finance Center shared a similar story. “During this past winter, the Finance Center had several weather related delays/closures. With over 400 civilian staff there is no traditional ‘phone tree’ for notification. AWS-E saved countless personnel hours notifying members.” He also stated that the addition of contractor personnel to AWS-E (which occurred earlier this month) further increased the Finance Center’s benefits by expanding coverage to over 200 contractor personnel.

AWS-E can vastly improve the organization’s overall emergency/disaster response and reporting capabilities.

Note: To date there are close to 140 Coast Guard commands/units using AWS. These commands are responsible for over 3,000 alerts being sent (weather related closing, active shooter drill alerts, etc.) since January 2014.

graph with May

Dec. to May Usage Chart

What is the catch? Is AWS-E difficult to use?

There is no catch. AWS-E is a very user friendly system. Once a person is trained, it may take no more than 5-10 minutes to draft and send out an alert to hundreds, or even thousands, of personnel. Imagine how long the same notification through phone tree would take Coasties everywhere are embracing this new technology.

 

How can someone get trained on AWS-E?

AWS-E training can be requested by submitting a CGFIXIT ticket. The training is a webinar that lasts approximately 90 minutes. Further information on AWS-E can be found on the AWS CG Portal.

What about post event accountability. Can that be done via AWS-E?

Although AWS-E has two-way communication capabilities, it is NOT the Coast Guard system of record for personnel accountability; the Coast Guard Personnel Accountability and Assessment System (CGPAAS) is that system. The District Commander issues an Order-To-Account (OTA) for an affected geographic area of interest (GAOI), then CGPAAS collects accountability responses. CGPAAS includes dependents and sponsors, whereas AWS-E only reaches sponsors. For further information on CGPAAS.

Planning for internet and phone outages post event is a must!

In the aftermath of a significant weather event such as a hurricane, tornado, etc., it is probable the internet, phone, and other means of instant communication (which we are all accustomed too) will be lost for a significant period of time. This could impact both AWS-E and CGPAAS. Planning for this loss by having secondary and tertiary communication methods in place is something commands must identify.

Mr. Jeff Hughes, ForceCom Exercise Support, recommends commands consider the following when discussing communication losses/plans:

• Educate personnel on when and where to report to duty if a significant event occurs and communications via phone, internet, etc. are lost.

• Ensure multiple communications paths (AWS, websites, commercial FM radio stations, TV, etc.) are used in response to significant events. Identify the modes of communication and they are known prior to the event occurring (e.g. written in Natural disaster plan).

• Ensure natural disaster plans include a section for how to operate without phone and internet access for at least 24-48 hours.

• Rotate duty personnel post event to ensure time to care for families and personal issues.

Effective communications prior to, during and post significant weather event, like a hurricane, is critical to ensure the safety, security and overall well-being of Coast Guard members and their families. This article has identified some new methods and potential barriers to communication that can be overcome with proper planning and use of available Coast Guard tools.

For more information on AWS-E or CGPAAS contact Lt. Cdr. Zachary Ford, CG-1B1, 202-475-5017.

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