Four Technologies That Erode Preparedness

The clients I serve run the gamut when it comes to the availability of fancy office accoutrements. Like any Alaskan consultant worth her salt, I’ve slept on school floors instead of hotels and taught classes in living rooms and unheated meeting spaces, and I’ve also dressed to the nines for formal presentations in the most technologically advanced conference facilities in Alaska. I don’t have a briefcase; I have a backpack – all the better to schlep a variety of tools with which to adapt to the technological advances – or deficiencies – of the places in which I work. The fact that I haven’t purchased a new laptop in ten years may perhaps contribute to the weight of that backpack, both in computer size and the necessary components to align my equipment with my clients’.

Some people might  find a preparedness professional making do with antiquated technology a contradiction in terms. But I contend that true preparedness cannot be purchased with the latest and greatest technologies. In fact, I’ve noticed that the bells and whistles in some of the most well-equipped offices seem to weaken clients’ ability to establish and maintain a robust and effective preparedness program!

Of the troublesome tech out there, these are examples of ones that can present obstacles to organizational preparedness:

1. Smart boards 

I have to admit, it’s getting to the point at which I see a smart board in a clients’ office and my heart sinks. The presence of a smart board usually means that actual white boards have been all but eliminated in the facility. The smart board is their only tool for documenting up-to-the minute situation information, which can be problematic in several ways. Like all tech, smart boards require some level of user proficiency and this is usually limited to a handful of people in the office. They can be time consuming to start up, whereas all one has to do to scribble a thought on a white board is uncap a pen. Many times the smart board utilizes the same screen on which I am trying to project a presentation, map, or exercise prompt, forcing me to either flip back and forth between screens or to forgo the note-taking altogether, which has deleterious effects on group work and on emergency preparedness exercises.

As I guide the client through developing their Emergency Operations Plan, we invariably get to the point where they realize that if they are operating without electrical power after an emergency, that smart board is going to be useless and they’ll have no way to keep their situation board updated with real-time information. At that point the client starts shopping for a regular white board to supplement their smart board, which always warms my heart.

Though the dependence on technology can sometimes exasperate me, I am coming to love smartboards in a way, because they are a physical representation of the realities of managing a disaster incident without the conveniences of power and lighting. And so are…

2. Internet-dependent phone systems

Most people by now know that old fashioned, corded phones work in a power outage.  This is a really entertaining thing to show teenagers during personal preparedness classes. They understand that phones without cords work whenever you want them to, but showing them that a corded phone doesn’t need electricity truly blows their minds.  Most attendees of my corporate classes already know about this – but asking them where they can plug in a traditional phone at their office tends to stump them.  The more modern and technologically-updated the office, the less likely it is to have a regular old phone jack, let alone the dozen or so I usually recommend for a mid-sized company’s Emergency Operations Center.  The internet-dependent phones seem to work like any other phone, so it’s a jolt when the power goes off and everyone realizes there will be no phone calls until it comes back on. But people don’t worry at first, because they’ve got their….

3. Smartphones

There’s that “smart” word again! We’re passing the responsibility for being savvy to our devices these days, and that can have serious preparedness consequences. Remember when most of us knew the phone numbers of important people in our lives by heart? I still remember my childhood friends’ numbers, and I’m in my forties. Today I only know my husband’s and my parents’ numbers. If my cell phone quits, I won’t have any idea how to reach my friends. Ultimately the blame lies on me, but my smartphone is an enabler, requiring me to enter each phone number in only once – or even never, if someone texts or emails me the number – then hides it from me forever, only ever displaying the contact’s name when I call. The phone does all the work for us, so the information is simply neer stored in our brain cells. Looking up phone numbers on the Internet is a breeze with a smartphone, so many of us don’t even have phone books anymore. Which leads me to…

4. The Internet

The Internet is a miraculous thing, as those of us who remember life before it (which, incredibly, was not even really that long ago). The Internet puts tons of information at our fingertips, which is fantastic because no curiosity goes unexplored, no argument goes unsettled, and no wrong turn goes uncorrected. Actually, the first two things are what personally bother me about the Internet: I enjoy a good debate, and resolving harmless differences of opinion with a few pokes at a screen takes the fun out of it at dinner parties. The Internet can certainly provide us with a lot of facts, but it can also divulge endless bytes of wrong information at best, and be dangerously misleading and intentionally disruptive at worst. From the Triangle of Life to mysterious FEMA operations, rumors run wild on the ‘net. Even a search for simple information returns millions of results, and sifting through them for actual, verifiable facts probably takes longer than it would to just go to the library and rely on the good old Dewey Decimal system to find a peer-reviewed article or book. The Internet has huge potential for being a lifesaving disaster preparedness and informational tool, but it’s getting cluttered, and relying on it to answer your questions when time is critical might be a mistake.

As you can no doubt deduce, none of the above technologies are “bad,” nor does using them mean that you are doomed in a disaster. The key is to understand the tech you use in a way that lets you optimize its positive aspects and overcome its limitations. Back up your smartphone-stored contact list with a hard copy you can keep in your disaster kit. Install a few land-line phone jacks in your office building and keep some corded phones on hand. Take what you read on the Internet with a grain of salt, and seek known sources of verified information for your disaster responses (this is good advice for normal life, too, now that I’m thinking about it). Spend a little time considering your technology and make sure that you know a work-around during a disaster.

Those smart boards, though? Those can go. I certainly won’t miss them!

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