HAP Blog

Five Tools Health Care Emergency Managers Can Use to Boost Situational Awareness

December 01, 2020

As health care emergency management professionals, it is important to stay on top of what is happening and be in the know. The ability to continuously understand what is happening within our facility, in our region, or across the commonwealth is key to taking advantage of precious minutes during unplanned or “pop-up events.” 

Now, not all of our organizations have the resources of a 24-hour mission control “watch center” that can continuously obtain, synthesize, and distribute real-time intelligence to our key stakeholders. This would be great of course, but this capability requires a significant investment of time and resources, which are often at a premium. And large-scale events do not occur every day, so it can be difficult to commit to constantly monitoring for signs that trouble might be brewing.

None of this means we shouldn’t be trying to keep tabs and have some mechanism to keep up to date. We still need to have a way to obtain accurate and timely intelligence to be able to make more informed and effective decisions about our organization’s preparedness and response. In the absence of a mission control-style watch center, how can an organization obtain this information? How, during the regular course of a typical hectic health care workday can we be “tuned in” to what is going on?

Situational awareness helps us identify, process, and comprehend critical information about an incident in order to gain actionable intelligence needed to make decisions. Maintaining situational awareness is key, especially early on in an incident. There are a variety of sources of information that can be relied on to varying extents to provide situational awareness. The sources range from official public safety and government sources, to news media products, to unofficial sources such as mobile phone applications and social media.

I’ll take a moment to discuss and break down five sources of situational awareness information that can help keep health care emergency management personnel “be in the know” about rapidly escalating events that may affect them.


Corvena, previously known as Knowledge Center, is Pennsylvania’s official health care emergency management situational awareness and information-sharing platform. The Corvena system receives information about emergency events in progress from licensed health care organizations, county and state emergency management agencies, 911 public safety answering points, and other official entities, and makes this available real-time to health care organizations through the Internet. It can be configured to send email and text alerts to users about new incidents in their area. Access to Corvena can be obtained by contacting your regional health care coalition.

Social Media

While social media can be abundant sources of misinformation, when properly vetted, social media can give you real-time “eyes” on developing incidents.  

The proliferation of cell phones equipped with cameras has created an army of “correspondents” that often are on the scene way before the traditional new media cameras. Many mainstream geographic information systems (GIS), such as ArcGIS, actually use aggregated geolocation and hashtag data from photos and videos posted on social media to develop awareness products.

Photos and videos posted online through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Waze can be used to gather useful information about a developing incident. Emergency managers should focus on local, credible, and corroborated information while, at the same time, exercising some healthy suspicion and good judgement when utilizing this intelligence in their command center:

  • Look for things such as a live stream video of an emergency scene, particularly if multiple videos of the same incident are posted by unrelated sources or if the video corresponds with information received through official channels
  • Be sure to avoid delayed or edited video and pictures from single, unknown sources, or written or photographic information that seems implausible and cannot be backed up by official information
  • If possible, seek information posted on official government or news media social media sites—these may be the most reliable when there is doubt.

Public Safety Radio

Monitoring of public safety radio systems, such as those used by police, fire, and emergency medical services agencies, can be a source of early warning for the emergency manager. This can be accomplished by the use of a “police scanner” or other consumer radio receiver, or by the use of official public safety radio equipment (if that is available to you).

Typically, the 911 system is the first point of notification for disaster incidents, and monitoring the dispatching of emergency services can provide advance notification of events that may affect a hospital. While hearing a dispatch for a large-scale emergency can give you a good heads-up, it’s important to realize that what emergency services are dispatched to is not always what they find when they get there.

Emergency management teams need to monitor the follow up and “on scene” reports of the responders in order to understand exactly what may be transpiring. This may take additional time and might not be practical in some situations where you need to attend to other details. Public safety personnel often use lingo or codes on the radio that generally may not be understood; therefore, it may take a trained ear to understand the communications.

If you or a member of your incident command team has public safety experience, you may be at an advantage here. Some radio systems use “encryption” to scramble their messages so they cannot be overhead by users with police scanners, meaning you may need to have an official public safety radio unit in order to listen in. Check with your county 911 center or emergency management agency about what equipment you may need.

FEMA Daily Operations Briefing

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a daily email briefing summarizing the main events occurring across the country. While it may not be local in nature, the briefing can provide information regarding the various national response activities to larger events such as hurricanes that may ultimately impact the facility. It also provides weather forecasts, the status of deployed federal teams and resources, and other national situational information.

Online Scanner Applications

A number of website and mobile device applications offer live streaming of public safety radio systems, which allow for monitoring transmissions on a computer or smart phone. While having similar issues to those already mentioned above, the “scanner” apps have some distinct advantages and disadvantages. The apps allow access to radio transmissions from areas further away than a radio receiver may provide, such as the next county or even state, and may enhance the ability to detect events in neighboring jurisdictions.

One unique and useful feature of many of the apps is an “alert” feature, which can notify you if a selected number of listeners begin streaming a certain radio feed. If a large number of users begin listening to a feed from an area near the hospital, the alert can give an emergency manager a lead on a larger incident that may be developing nearby, even if they are not actively listening to the radio audio.

The apps are useful, and sometimes more convenient than using a radio receiver to hear the audio, however sometimes the apps operate with a time delay (at times up to two minutes), which could be an issue. And of course, they rely on Internet connectivity to work which may not be available in an emergency event. Search for “Scanner Radio Pro” on your Apple or Android device.

Every hospital—and emergency management team—is unique and no single mix of these and other tools will be a universally perfect fit. Each of the sources has their own advantages and notable pitfalls; however, when properly considered in context, each can help health care emergency managers develop an element of situational awareness with minimal effort and expense.

We know that time is working against us in rapidly escalating events, so the earlier we can learn of issues, the more prepared or forward-leaning we can be. Ultimately, this can lead to a better-timed and more efficient response.

If you or your team would like more information or assistance in improving your organizational situational awareness, HAPevolve is able to provide expert support and guidance. For more information about this article, contact Chris Chamberlain, HAP’s manager, emergency management.

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