All About That Tech

For the past two days I’ve been hanging out with some of the nation’s (and quite probably the world’s) top disaster researchers to discuss disaster communications. They invited me to provide a “from the field” perspective to academics; someone to tell them if the academic work has or will really impact those of us on the pointy end of the stick.  For the most part the science really does support what happens outside the hallowed halls (I have to say that this group has a keen interest in pursuing projects that add value to both practitioners as well as academia, and I’m grateful for that). In fact, the research some of these people did formed the foundation of

One of the things they asked me talk about was the ever popular “what keeps me up at night?” question (this question, and “are we ready?” seem to be the most popular questions for emergency managers…like asking clergy if the collar is uncomfortable). In formulating my answer, I came to the realization that, first: I really don’t get a lot of sleep for a variety of reasons; and, second: one of the biggest worries I carry around is a bit of a contradiction; I worry about our collective dependence on technology, while at the same time I’m constantly looking for more efficient and innovative ways to incorporate said technology into the response/recovery world. So what gives you ask? Has my cheese finally slid fully of the cracker?

I guess I reconcile this dichotomy like this: tech is here, it’s part of our lives…and like all things it has mechanical components and dependencies that make it vulnerable to failure. And while I want big beautiful digital displays of stuff, I know that at some point we’ll need to bust out the crayons and butcher paper.

So, the basic question is: how are people going to cope when the access to communication and information is suddenly stripped from our lives..cold turkey…for weeks? Have people thought about it? Tech is as natural as walking and is such an integral part of our lives that we risk personal safety to use it (yes, I’m referring to you…the one in the cross walk looking at your phone…really the debate on PBR v Olympia can wait 20 seconds).

I admit I’m throwing stones from my glass house because I’m just as vulnerable. Between home and work, I routinely bounce between two smart phones, two tablets and multiple other computers…not to mention satellite phones, radios, and a host of AV stuff. Humans have always been tool users and it’s prety amazing that we’ve evolved from stone to iron to mechanical to digital tools in a relatively rapid sequence, especially the last 150-200 years (anthropologists: forgive my simplified summation of thousands of years of evolution into one sentence). Our tools have gone from devices to give us a mechanical advantage to ones that give us a cognitive advantage. In other words, we made tools so we don’t have to think. Don’t believe me? Do math with a pencil. What’s your best friends phone number? Heck, what’s your phone number? Do you know how to read a map and figure out your directions? Can you recite the preamble to the Constitution? These were all things that most of us could do without digital assistance not very long ago.

My point here is that maybe we’ve lost some ability to function manually in the digital world. And again…I’m just as guilty (now I’m stuck on the Preamble dammit!! I had to learn it in 8th grade… Pushed aside by Buzzfeed and that eye searing picture of Kim Kardashian they posted, which suggests an off topic discussion of quantity vs. quality of information, but I digress…).

So what to do? Building redundancy and making systems resilient is a never ending challenge, and the information networks of today are far less fragile than they once were. Nothing is fail proof though.  That’s a simple fact of life. Even if the systems themselves are great (they’re not) don’t forget that those networks are interdependent with other networks: power, fuel, transportation, etc. It’s a lot like the old song about the thigh bone connected to the shin bone, but with all the ligaments, tendons, nerves and muscles thrown in. A failure in one or more of those components and you’re going get an up close understanding of how gravity works. Same holds true for our information conduits.

After a major earthquake we know that roads will be damaged and access limited. Fuel supply lines will be interrupted from both the production and distribution sides, and power generation and distribution may be compromised at multiple points. Without getting all doom and gloom, it’s pretty safe to say at some point we’ll be dependent on manual means to do everything from find a phone number to open a can of soup, which we may have to eat cold (bleh).

When’s the last time you wrote a document without a computer? Communicate with someone via courier or regular land line phone (no, you cannot simply drag the cord across the street so you can get coffee while on the call)? Read…or even held…a paper map? Bought something with cash? Got news/information without the internet?

For a thousand reasons the networks we rely on every day can fail, and often times they do. Most of the time the systems come back on line before our batteries die, the deadline passes or we experience anything more than annoyance. We’re back to foodie photos and pet selfies in mere moments. But what if? What if the carriers can’t restore service in moments? What are you going to do when that restoration period is days or even weeks? How do plan to cope?

I’m just saying you might want to think about it. Maybe look up for some stuff you should keep on hand and then ask Siri to find a manual can opener and some battery powered reading lights (phone books are NOT backlit) that you can buy before the lights go out.

I, for one, am going to make sure we have plenty of butcher paper, blue tape and crayons in our Emergency Operations Center. And a manual can opener (and maybe even a sterno…’cuz cold soup is kinda gross).


About sfdemrob

Director of Emergency Services with a single mission: make the idea of community resiliency synonymous with San Francisco.

Posted on November 14, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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