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Technology is NOT a Plan

May 8, 2007

Too often, emergency managers and planners have mistaken buying a new technological marvel for developing an emergency plan. This new technology is usually a means of coordination or communication, two key parts of any plan. Unfortunately, the past few weeks have given us two illustrations of just what a harmful mistake this can be.

The Virginia Tech administration has been excoriated for its response to the mass murder perpetrated on its campus on April 16, 2007. As I’m sure we’ve all heard by now, the killer first attacked an ex-girlfriend and resident assistant, killing them both. Approximately two hours elapsed before the University notified the students by email of a shooting incident and to be aware of their surroundings. About fifteen minutes later, more distress calls were placed by students in Norris Hall, where the bulk of the murders occurred. One can believe that sending an alert to the student body in a more direct fashion without a two-hour delay might have prevented this madness from continuing. I’m not convinced that’s the case, but one could certainly make such an argument.

Should the University have known that the rampage was going to continue, I’m sure that a different tack would have been taken. Unfortunately, with the information they had on hand, the Administration trusted that their plan, their technology, would suffice as a warning. I believe that the same course of action, even done promptly, would not have made much of a difference. Simply put, email is poor emergency alerting system. The Blackberry network helps change that a bit, but more on that later. The vast majority of people get their email on a computer, don’t usually check their email at 7:30am (the approximate time of the first shooting), and only check their email intermittently. A more effective communication strategy would have included several communication modalities. Text messaging, “reverse 911” technologies, and even social networking software such as a blog with an RSS feed or twitter, could have been employed to make sure that every student was reached in the manner best befitting them. None of these technologies is perfect, and only when used in concert could you ensure near-complete coverage – BUT, it would still be better than a plan (read: technology) that is not completely reliable.

Then, in a completely unrelated, and thankfully much less violent, incident, one of the two Research in Motion BlackBerry server farms stopped sending emails to subscriber’s devices. Articles in corporate newsprint illustrated the frustration that many who have become addicted to their devices experienced. But the problem was much, much worse than that. If, during the 10-hour disconnection some enterprising terrorist attacker or natural disaster struck, too many cities, states, corporations and government agencies’ “plans” would have been as useless as the BlackBerry on their belt clips.

Those who use the BlackBerry as the primary emergency communication modality would have been out of luck right away. What little continuity of operations planning had taken place would have been useless, counter-productive, and in the worst case scenario, ultimately harmful (from a business, liability and human perspective).

The inimitable John Bowen of the Institute for Preventive Strategies and the Hometown Security blog has posted on text messaging software in San Francisco, and noted, “The more channels that are available, the better your chances of getting the message out.”  Sounds like a good plan, as opposed to some of the other “plans” we’ve seen.

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