Power User: Lack of technology is a disaster

John McCormick

It's still difficult for me to concentrate on the trivialities of computer technology during the ongoing tragedy along the Gulf Coast, especially when I know from personal experience just how poorly prepared we are to face real disasters. I also know how simple and inexpensive it would be to improve the situation, even without cutting-edge technology. And it doesn't require searching the shoes of 90-year-old great-grandmothers before letting them board an airplane (an airplane that probably has cargo in its hold that wasn't inspected).

I have great respect and sympathy for the rescue workers. Having spent a lot of time in the North Atlantic, I especially commend the efforts of the Coast Guard search-and-rescue workers. I never needed them but often saw their fine work.

However, I can't say I'm even slightly surprised by the poor performance of emergency management, especially at the higher levels. I served for years as a local emergency management coordinator in Pennsylvania. I finally resigned in protest when a large post-9/11 grant was used to redesign a report form rather than buy radios so local coordinators could communicate with fire and rescue workers. Those who are serving here still don't even have beepers to let them know when to respond to a disaster. None of them is required to have computers or e-mail, and few do. Our County Emergency Management director and county commissioners don't read or answer their e-mail'even during normal times.

Considering the value of e-mail and instant messaging during a crisis, not to mention easily obtainable satellite Internet service (possibly the only way to communicate in a disaster), I couldn't see spending tens of thousands of dollars reformatting a piece of paper that resulted in more busy work for coordinators. Neither could I see myself wasting time training to coordinate events that I had no hope of controlling.

Demand the technology you need

It is not unreasonable to demand that local emergency management coordinators have beepers and radios with fire department channels. Does it make any sense that because I could buy the necessary technology on my own, I was the only local coordinator in my county with Global Positioning System maps?

Much of the money appropriated for emergency preparedness is simply being squandered instead of invested in basic off-the-shelf technology for training and communications. Cutting-edge tools aren't necessary.

I'm not intimately familiar with the tools available to those emergency management workers on the ground in the Gulf Coast region, but I can't imagine that their situation is that different from what I experienced up north. And from what my off-the-record contacts in the region tell me, I'm right.

There wasn't a team of three or four police officers at the Louisiana Superdome or the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with a satellite phone'but there should have been. There should have been someone there with a laptop to record the names of everyone entering those facilities and immediately placing that information on the Web. Seems like a no-brainer.

All the blame doesn't belong at the local level, but that's probably where it will land, as usual. No matter how poorly trained a coordinator is, simply having the ability to communicate is crucial. Without that capacity, no amount of training can extend a coordinator's control beyond the sound of his or her voice.

The people involved, especially the aid workers, will be under severe stress for years. They need technology to get their jobs done. If we don't finally learn from this, we will have failed as a country to care for our own. The world is watching.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected]


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