There is a lot to be said about the technology being developed in this gadget era. Most of it is designed to assist us and those we are called upon to protect.
A recent personal experience set me wondering, though, are we too dependent on technology? Have we lost the skills required to revert to a manual mode, do we have sufficient redundancy and has there been enough redundancy training?
I watched in dismay as a computer glitch sent one of the world’s major airline checking systems into complete chaos. The staff went white with fear when they realised that they would have to go into manual mode.
I noted several things (I had my boarding pass, but my plane was delayed like everyone else):
- It was true disbelief this could happen, and therefore no action was taken to start setting up the manual system – ‘It will only take 15 minutes to reboot the system’ was the announcement. The expectation was it would be repaired soon. I watched as 45 minutes went by with no action. This immediately added to the delays that would follow, no one was able to or could make the call to go to manual mode after 45 minutes had passed.
- It appeared no one had allocated tasks in the setting up, and the lines were getting longer. This scenario appeared not to have been tested.
- No extra staff had arrived at the 70-minute mark, passengers were getting angry as they missed their flights.
- At the 90-minute mark everything went into overdrive. What appeared to be an army of workers started bringing out manual forms, transcribing information from electronic (where that was possible) to a paper-based system.
- It took another 20 minutes before the first customer was processed.
Two other observations were that decision-making and delegation to make a manual system function correctly appeared to be confused and management was not at the coalface to ensure experienced staff were there for support. Secondly in the 110 minutes I watched this unfortunate situation I would estimate 80 minutes of non-action could have been avoided with the appropriate scenario training, resulting in the first manual customer being processed in 30 minutes not 110 minutes.
Now let’s talk about the Asian Emergency Services. I would like to think we are better practised at dealing with disruption; however, we have had our own regional disruption that should set us thinking.
The volcanic eruption and associated tsunami near Tonga last month caused the trans-Pacific communications cable to break, cutting Tonga off electronically from the rest of the world and causing communication problems that delayed the assessment of needs, damage and disaster relief.
Floods in Australia, Indonesia, India etc. have all seen communication breakdowns in the field and that is to be expected, but countries now have sophisticated command headquarters that depend on fast broadband connections to manage the vast amount of data they receive and pass on to field operatives. A small example is the now well-tested people movement systems: emergency workers need to be rotated in the field, fed, rested and sheltered. The old days of whiteboards have gone and smart computer programs now do most of the work. If these systems fail, for any one of a hundred reasons, could you seamlessly revert to a whiteboard and coloured pens?
People that consider there is a system that has all the required backups and is robust enough to meet any challenge should talk to the people in Tonga.
The aim is to provide the best possible incident management system. If and when the system breaks down, can you provide the best available incident management system? If not, may I suggest some intense redundancy system training. In our line of work, unlike the airline people, lives depend on us.
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