Be First, Be Right, Be Credible: Communicating During Emergencies

Fire Department of New York officials communicate with the media
Fire Department of New York (FDNY) officials communicate with the media. Photo courtesy the FDNY.
Fire Department of New York officials communicate with the media
Fire Department of New York (FDNY) officials communicate with the media. Photo courtesy the FDNY.

By Dave Donohue

Emergencies, whether large or small, have their own information stream. How emergency services agencies manage the information stream can bolster the agency or reduce it to a meaningless sideshow. Fire and emergency services leaders must be aware that information about emergencies will be distributed, whether they are involved or not. To better serve their communities and their organizations, managing information is critical to success during and after the incident.

Emergency Information

For the community, emergencies are periods of high stress that alter the way information is received and processed, requiring that communication styles should be altered in order to be effective. First, during periods of high stress, the ability to process large amounts of information is significantly reduced and the ability to distill meaning is hampered, leading to misunderstanding of risk, actions, and other factors. To address this, emergency messages should be simple and short, focusing on key information using non-technical terms. Second, when messages conflict with daily reality, other agencies, or individuals, members of the community will hold on to their traditional beliefs and paradigms. At this point, rumors and especially the opinions of trusted individuals are seen as valid and correct regardless of evidence and any information that differs is often discounted. As message conflict becomes apparent, individuals will continue to seek out information from official and unofficial sources. Finally, greater credibility is given to the first message regarding the emergency incident. This requires additional work and messaging to overcome any misinformation associated with the first message received.


Controlling Communications During a Critical Incident

Safety Officer Drill: Incident Communication Red Flags

Social Media Concerns During Emergencies and Incidents: Lessons from a Recent Tragedy

Communications Broke Down: An Excuse for a Serious Problem

How We Process Messages During a Crisis and How We Can Make Emergency Messages Stick

We simplify messages and information We only hear part of what is being sent, our memory is impaired due to stress, and we are prone to misinterpret information Use simple messages, avoid technical jargon, and repeat critical points
We hold on to current beliefs We discount information that conflicts with what we believe to be true and we refuse to believe evidence that is in conflict with what we believe Use credible sources for delivering truthful, fact-based, specific messages and provide positive actions that can be taken
We seek additional information and opinions We look at different sources for information, we call others, and we search the Internet seeking facts and opinions Use consistent messages that are coordinated and released from trusted partners and stakeholders
We believe the first message that we hear When we are confronted with unique situations and emergencies, the first message about the situation sticks Release credible, fact-based, verified messages as quickly as possible and work with other partners and stakeholders to release similar messages

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014

When crafting information to be released, consider three audience groups that should be addressed. The first group consists of those who are directly impacted by the emergency incident. This includes victims, emergency responders, and associated groups such as hospitals. The information needed relates to actions that they can take and safety messages. The second group consists of those individuals located directly outside of the impact area, the media, and the families of victims and responders. Messages and information for this group is focused on the facts of the incident, safety precautions, and limiting any actions that they should take. Finally, information and messages for everyone not already identified should address safety concerns and provide reassurance that actions are being taken to mitigate the incident.

Target Audience and Message

Communication Planning and the Incident Communications Cycle

To effectively manage communications during an emergency, develop a communications plan to guide actions during the five phases of the emergency communications lifecycle. Build the plan during the pre-crisis phase. It should consist of general guidance and instructions for communications that can be tailored to any incident type. The plan assigns actions and responsibilities; contains contacts for stakeholders, including the media; coordinates procedures; and describes how information will be shared and vetted. The plan is reviewed, endorsed, and signed by senior leadership and representatives from partner and stakeholder groups, ensuring their familiarity with the plan and how it will operate. Once the plan is finalized, it should be reviewed and exercised on a regular basis to ensure currency and identify and correct areas of deficiency or weakness. Other activities that take place during the pre-crisis phase include building collaborative teams across disciplines, developing consensus recommendations, crafting and testing messages, and ensuring organizational and community preparedness for all community hazards and risks.

Common Elements of a Successful Emergency Communications Plan

  • Describes how the situation will be verified
    • Substantiating facts
    • Addressing rumors
  • Identifies how parties will be notified of the incident
  • Identifies how the plan will be activated, how situational awareness will be gained, and how a common operating picture will be shared
  • Describes duties, responsibilities, and authorities of individuals and organizations
  • Describes how information will be gathered, formatted, approved, and released
  • Describes how information about performance will be collected and reviewed and how improvement processes will take place
  • Describes how efforts to educate the public about emergencies will occur
  • Describes how daily events will be monitored
  • Describes how and when joint information centers will be established
  • Identifies the process for designating spokespersons and subject matter experts

Once an incident occurs, the initial phase has begun. During the initial phase, agencies will begin to gather and confirm information for release to ensure that it is factual, determine the level of communication that is needed, and coordinate the response to the incident. When vetting information and determining what information needs to be released, begin by ensuring that the information is accurate and contextualized. Separate truthful facts into “need-to-know” and “nice-to-know” categories. During the initial phase, the focus will be on need-to-know information.  This information is generally related to safety, initial actions that are being taken, and actions that can be taken by those in the emergency area. Once the need-to-know information has been assembled and formatted, if possible, have the document checked by at least three people for accuracy. These editors should include someone responsible for the organization’s reputation, the policy director, and a subject matter expert. In addition, it is important to share the document with involved stakeholders prior to release to ensure accuracy and consistent messaging and as a courtesy. Once the document has been determined to be accurate, release should follow the guidance within the communications plan and organizational directives. The release should acknowledge the incident, provide empathy and information, and establish credibility for the response.

Initial Phase Communications

Objectives What the public wants to hear
  • Acknowledge the emergency with empathy
  • Explain and inform using simple, clear terms
  • Establish the credibility of the spokesperson and the organization
  • Provide information on actions to take and where to get additional information
  • Coordinate messages across stakeholders
  • Commit to being open and accessible
  • Commit to communicating regularly
  • Facts
  • What is being done to now to correct the problem
  • What is the magnitude and scope of the incident
  • How long will the incident last
  • How will the incident be fixed
  • Who is responsible for fixing the problem

Initial Message Recommendations

  • Keep the target audience in mind
  • Convey empathy
  • Be prepared
  • Be honest and truthful
  • Provide short, concise messages that are limited in detail and laser focused
  • Provide information that is immediately relevant
  • When giving actions to be taken, give them as actions to do, not actions to avoid (for example: ” stay indoors” rather than “do not go outside”)
  • Repeat the critical items of the message
  • Create action steps in groups of three or four or make an acronym (for example: “to improve your cost recovery rate for FEMA Public Assistance tell us what you did, what you used, when you did it, and who did it” (four items)
  • Use personal pronouns for the organization (for example: “we contained the spill”)
  • Avoid technical jargon
  • Don’t fill with unnecessary information
  • Don’t guess or assume
  • Don’t be condescending or judgmental
  • Address the problem, not the people
  • Promise only what you are sure can be delivered
  • Don’t discuss cost or liability
  • Don’t apologize
  • Don’t use humor or smile. Use appropriate emotions
  • Dress professionally when presenting
  • Don’t be overly graphic in discussing the emergency

With time, there will come a point where the incident is ongoing but most or all the direct harm has been contained. This is known as the maintenance phase. During this phase, communications should focus on helping the public understand their risk, both from the incident and from a similar incident reoccurring in the future; providing background information on what happened, how it happened, the history and probability of future incidents, and recovery operations; generating support for response and recovery efforts; explaining recommendations for preventing or mitigating future incidents; and empowering risk-benefit decision making for the community and policymakers.

Crisis and Emergency Communication Lifecycle

The resolution and evaluation phases begin the process of moving into the future. The resolution phase looks to improve public awareness of risk and their role in prevention, mitigation, and response while also looking at the emergency response for successes and areas for improvement. This phase also seeks public support for policy and resources to mitigate, prepare, prevent, and respond to future incidents while also promoting the actions and abilities of the organization. The evaluation phase builds on the actions of the mitigation phase to develop preincident plans, acquire resources, and prepare for future emergencies based on the lessons learned and improvement planning process of assigning responsibilities for improvement. This phase also links with the pre-crisis phase, completing the cycle.


Communicating with the public and the media is stressful for most emergency services personnel. Failing to communicate messages in a way that the public and community can understand and act upon limits the community’s ability to respond and recover and prepare for future incidents. Emergency services leaders should include communications planning as a critical factor in successful organizational management, as an effective risk-reduction strategy, and as a conduit for ensuring that the organization has access to the resources, partnerships, and community involvement it needs to succeed in the future.

EPA’s Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication

Rule Guidelines
Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner
  • Show respect for the public by involving the community early
  • Clarify that decisions about risk will be based not only on the magnitude of the risk but factors that concern the public
  • Involve all parties that have an interest or stake in the particular risk
  • Recognize that people hold leaders accountable and follow the highest moral and ethical standards
Listen to the audience
  • Do not make assumptions about what people know, think, or want done about risk
  • Find out what people are thinking by using techniques such as interviews, discussion groups, advisory groups, and surveys
  • Listen to all parties that have an interest or stake in the issue
  • Recognize people’s emotions<
  • Let people know that you understand their concerns and are addressing them
  • Understand that audiences often have hidden agendas, symbolic meanings, and broader social, cultural, economic, or political considerations that complicate the task
Be honest, frank, and open
  • State your credentials, but don’t ask or expect that you will be trusted
  • Follow up with answers that can’t be answered at the time
  • Make corrections if errors are made
  • Do not minimize or exaggerate the level of riskLean toward sharing more information, not less
  • Discuss data uncertainties, strengths, and weaknessesIdentify worst-case estimates and cite range of risk estimates
Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources
  • Coordinate all communications among and within organizations
  • Devote effort and resources to building bridges, partnerships, and alliances
  • Use credible and authoritative intermediaries
  • Consult with others to determine who is best able to answer questions about risk
  • Try to release communications jointly with other trustworthy sources
Meet the needs of the media
  • Remain open with and accessible to reporters
  • Respect deadlines
  • Provide information tailored to the type of media
  • Agree with the reporter in advance about specific topics and stick to them
  • Prepare a limited number of positive key messages in advance and repeat them several times during the interview
  • Provide background material on complex issues
  • Do not speculate
  • Say only what you are willing to have repeated
  • Keep interviews short
  • Establish long-term trust with specific editors and reporters
Speak clearly and with compassion
  • Use plain language
  • Remain sensitive to local norms
  • Be brief
  • Use graphics and pictures to clarify messages
  • Personalize risk
  • Acknowledge and respond to emotions that are expressed
  • Recognize and respond to what the public deems is important in evaluating risk
  • Use comparisons to help put risk in perspective
  • Avoid comparisons that ignore distinctions that people consider important
  • Include a discussion of actions that are either underway or can be taken
  • Promise only what can be delivered
  • Follow through with promises and commitments
  • Understand that any illness, injury, or death is a tragedy
  • Avoid distant, abstract, or unfeeling language about death, injury, or illness
Plan carefully and evaluate performance
  • Begin with clear and explicit objectives
  • Provide information to the public
  • Offer reassurance that something is being done
  • Encourage protective action and behavior change
  • Stimulate emergency response
  • Involve partners in joint problem solving
  • Assess technical information about risks
  • Pre-test messages
  • Identify important organizations and subgroups within the audience
  • Aim communications at specific subgroups
  • Recruit spokespersons with effective presentation and human interaction skills
  • Train staff in communications skills
  • Recognize and reward outstanding performance
  • Evaluate efforts
  • Learn from mistakes


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Crisis Emergency Risk Communication. US Department of Health and Human Resources, Washington: DC

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Keeping the US Prepared and Ready to Respond to Public Health Threats.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). EPA’s Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication.

U.S. Forest Service. (2020). Public Fire Information Website.

Seeger, M., Sellnow, T, & Ulmer, R. (2003). Communication and organizational crisis. Westport: CT

U.S. Coast Guard. (2014). PIO Job Aid.

About the author

Dave Donohue is a 40-year veteran of emergency services and has served with emergency services, fire departments, and EMS agencies in Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He resides near Hagerstown, Maryland and is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Emergency Services Consulting. He works for a fire-EMS educational institution in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is an adjunct instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and is a member of Community Volunteer Fire Company of District 12 in Fairplay, Maryland. He can be found wandering the stands of Hagerstown Municipal Stadium during the minor league season or reached at

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