by Meredith Pallante CEM CMP | December 4, 2017

Meredith Pallante, CEM, CMPConsumer Technology Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro recently wrote about his experience at CTA's Executive Board retreat in Napa Valley, an event that coincided with the region's deadly wildfires. In his piece, Gary offers his wisdom on the value of redundancy in technology. From a meeting planner's perspective, I also learned some important lessons about what to do in an emergency when your best-laid plans fall through.

As an events industry, we focus heavily on our crisis plans and emergency manuals - guidance for ourselves, our staffs and our stakeholders that outlines what to do during event emergencies. In the November 2016 issue of Meetings and Conventions, I detailed CTA's experience, security procedure and crisis plan manual for an event held in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Typically, our manuals rely heavily on cellphone and email communication. Planners have procedures outlined for hurricanes, bomb threats, injury and (now) fires, to name just a few daunting scenarios. Let me ask you: How many of these procedures start with "Call the crisis team to assemble in meeting location," or "Email stakeholders" or "Send text message to all attendees"?

Now imagine, the power is out, Internet is out and cell service is down. What is your plan?

This is exactly what happened to us in Napa, and as a planner, I became aware that I was frighteningly unprepared for this scenario. Even if I had wanted to go door to door and wake up every attendee in my group to inform them of the situation, I couldn’t because the hotel didn't have power to turn on its computers and look up the room numbers of my group, and some hotels might safeguard this information for privacy purposes.

My efforts to contact the transportation company to arrange a bus out of Napa posthaste were thwarted, as cell service was exceptionally spotty. The transportation company headquarters had no power, and their communication systems were down, too. The only thing I could and did do was to leave my group behind and personally drive to the transportation company headquarters - uncomfortably close to fires burning in the hills on either side of us - and beg them to send a shuttle to our location right away.

On my way out of Napa, in a car packed with our most vulnerable attendees (including me, at five months pregnant), I shuddered to think of what could have happened to us if those fires were any closer to our hotel - if we had relied solely on our plans to use technology to activate our emergency procedures. I vowed to update our team's crisis procedures to include contingencies for how to move forward when communication is lost. What follows are a few examples of CTA’s updated crisis procedures.

Have a clear understanding of the hotel's communication system in the event of an evacuation.
Ask to speak with the hotel's security team during the contracting or planning stage to review the process of notifying guests of an emergency or evacuation. Include these plans in your crisis manual and share the information with the crisis team. The hotel should have a PA system - ask if it will operate when power is out. Have multiple hard copies of the room and attendee list printed before arriving on-site to check that all members of your group are accounted for during an evacuation.

Set a meeting location within a safe but reasonable distance from the event venue.
Inform all members of the crisis team of this location prior to the event and share a map. Direct your team to meet at this location in case of evacuation or if communication is down to determine next steps.

Have an existing contract with a local transportation company or the hotel that outlines what to do during an evacuation when communication is down. The procedure should be activated as soon as an evacuation is initiated by local government. This plan could include:

  1. Sending shuttles to evacuate staff, vulnerable attendees or the entire group;
  2. Sending a car to the hotel for the event manager's use;
  3. Contacting the event manager by radio to determine a plan of action.

Locate and note the nearest two-way radio before your event.
Find out whether your venue has access to a two-way radio, which might require a license by the FCC. Two-way radio is a communications mode that does not rely on external power supplies or a physical communications infrastructure. This makes two-way radios a good communication mode during an emergency. Note emergency radio frequencies in your crisis plan (for example, 34.90 is used by the National Guard during emergencies).

Update event attendees' emergency contacts.
Loved ones might panic when trying to get in touch with attendees, so plan to notify each attendee's emergency contact (which should be a required field in the registration form) once communication is restored. This could be done via social media check-in once everyone is safe.

Consider adding the following to standard shipment materials or request that your General Contractor, DMC or venue supply them for you while on-site:

  1. First-aid kit with face masks for smoke, chemicals or smog;
  2. Hand-crank radio with a siren and access to NOAA alerts (event managers should subscribe to local emergency alerts);
  3. Satellite phone;
  4. Flashlights, extra batteries and safety glow sticks for attendee use during a nighttime or tropical weather evacuation;
  5. Pre-charged smartphone battery backup chargers and cords for charging.

As I sat in my safe (yet smoky) hotel room in San Francisco the evening after evacuating Napa and turned on the news, I realized how fortunate my group and I were. We had no idea the fires were so widespread, devastating and deadly. From this close call it became clear that, as an event planner, my job is bigger than picking a venue, a menu and a playlist. My job is to make sure everyone who attends an event that I am organizing is safe and secure. And the best way to do so is making their well-being my priority throughout every step of planning.

Meredith Pallante, CEM, CMP, is senior manager of events and conferences at the Consumer Technology Association.