In the event of extreme weather or a civil emergency, key utility and public service organisations have a vital role to play in providing advice and instructions to the general public.

With the 2007 floods in the UK costing over £3B, the Environment Agency recommended that essential service providers should become more active in local and national emergency preparation and response.

In order to ensure an effective response in an emergency situation and mitigate any risk to the national infrastructure, utility companies have been held responsible for relaying any warning or directions to their customers and other professional bodies as quickly as possible.

But specific warnings to individual homes and properties are likely to be technically challenging and costly so how can dam owners or operators get the message out swiftly while keeping cost down?

What went wrong?

In the UK in 2007, over 35,000 homes and businesses flooded from surface water alone and while there are a number of methods available to alert the public, only 34,000 homes were delivered warnings effectively to help them cope with the floods. In fact, 4100 properties were not provided with warnings due to the technical limitations of current flood forecasting systems.

Critical infrastructure was also badly damaged with a great deal of disruption to essential services. Some homes were without normal water supplies for up to two weeks and many schools were forced to close.

It is essential that accurate, timely information can be readily issued to the public as soon as possible to ensure minimal damage to homes, businesses and critical infrastructure. So what are the most effective methods of getting the message out there?

Getting seen and heard

Radio and media broadcasts are the standard method of issuing severe weather warnings within a local area, and admittedly many radio and television stations provide a good public service in such situations. They can broadcast frequent, informative updates and undoubtedly help to inform the public about the seriousness of events and the measures they can take to protect themselves.

However, the demand for interviews with key spokespersons in the event of an emergency are high, placing significant pressure on staff who are already stretched by operational demands, meaning that broadcasts may be delayed or lack vital information.

There is also a concern that alerts may not always be seen or heard due to the growing number of channels available, as it is unlikely that all the desired audience will be tuned in to local media outlets.

Weather swamping the web

Once warnings have been issued via various forms of media, it is inevitable that further strain is placed on other resources such as websites and call centres as the public strive to gain as much information as possible.

It is often the case in these circumstances that websites in particular come under scrutiny, as they may not be able to support the high volume of visitors attempting to access further information.

During the floods in 2007, the Environment Agency’s website received 10 times its normal amount of visitors, causing problems in the links between their computer systems. As a result, not all web pages included the latest information and were not updated quickly enough during periods of high demand.

Calling for back-up

After hearing an alert on the radio and finding themselves unable to access information online, the next option for many is to call for help; so inevitably, call centres are also placed under extreme stress during an emergency.

Direct calls, texts or fax messages are available on a voluntary basis but only 41% of people who can receive these alerts from the Floodline Warnings Direct service signed up. Indeed, it was estimated that in 2007 out of the 85% who did sign up and were sent a warning in good time, only 73% accepted the message.

The problems getting these messages to the correct party were due in part to the public not signing up to the service in the first place, and also to contact information not being updated correctly.

But surely a direct call or message is the most effective method of issuing a warning quickly, so what if there were a more reliable telephone service?

An alternative option – proactively getting the message out there

One advantage that utility companies have over other organisations is that their databases and contact details are more likely to be up to date, meaning that voice messaging is still a viable option.

However, voice messaging that is interactive is even more effective. These applications are able to automate the process of making telephone calls to named contacts, verifying their identity and then routing the call to a live agent, delivering a voice message or leaving an alert on an answer phone.

So unlike the media and websites, companies are able to guarantee that vital messages are being delivered to the correct contacts within the area at risk. In addition, systems such as this provide measurable benefits with minimal or no capital expenditure.

Providing timely and reliable advice

As the possibility of floods and other emergency situations become more frequent, the providers of critical public services need to take their role in protecting their services and customers from the consequences of these situations seriously.

However, it is important not to raise the alarm too frequently as this could also lead to people not taking action. In addition, any warnings that are issued must be simple to understand, to minimise further enquires and relieve the pressure on other resources.

Above all, there needs to be a single, consistent and recognised method for alerting the public against any civil emergency and it is vital that this chosen method is delivered clearly and accurately to ensure the message is understood.

We all hope that we will be spared a repeat of the extreme conditions such as the 2007 floods, but history tells us that in all likelihood the UK – and the rest of the world – will continue to suffer from unpredictable extreme weather.

It is therefore vital that owners and operators of dams and other organisations responsible for civil contingency have the right structures in place to cope with environmental extremes and communicate quickly and effectively with their customer base to help mitigate risk, otherwise such extreme conditions will continue to cost the UK dear.

Adrian Adams is a director of Qire, a provider of hosted, reliable and secure Voice CRM solutions that use real speech to communicate with customers. Its interactive voice messaging (IVM) solutions automate the process of making telephone calls to named contacts, verifying their identity and then routing the call to a live agent or delivering a personalised voice message. Its solutions have a wide range of applications, and can be used to confirm appointments, provide emergency alerts for events such as flooding and boost efficiency in retail delivery and contact centre environments.

For more information on Qire and its services please visit