When Atlanta got hit with the recent snowstorm, did communications hold up better than the roads?
Usually, I would say greetings from Hotlanta. But in the last week of January, Hotlanta became #Hothlanta.
In case you missed it, Atlanta, was completely shut down by a winter storm on January 28. A relatively small snowstorm caught the city off-guard, as a combination of sticky snow, untreated roads, and unprepared schools and businesses caused the worst gridlock the city has ever seen. And while many of our friends to the north scoff at our driving abilities down here (and rightfully so), the scene was serious: Kids trapped at schools, people trapped in their cars or offices, and traffic at a complete standstill. There was even a report of a baby delivered on Interstate 285.
It is estimated that 1 million cars entered the roads within the same time period to try to get home on ice-covered, untreated, and hilly roads.
So while most will focus on whether the weatherman, the governor, the schools, or simply Mother Nature are to blame, I wanted to reflect for a moment on the communications aspects of the weather event and offer a report card of how things went down.
Emergency Notifications: A-
As soon as the schools made the decision to close early on Tuesday, I was blasted with a combination of texts, emails, and phone calls communicating closure details. While I can't speak for all of the school systems, I was very pleased with the breadth and timeliness of the communications regarding school closings in my county.
The challenge has always been, though, that the emergency communications are only as good as the intelligence in the message. By the time the announcements were made, it was already too late given the lead times for dismissals and bus schedules. So while the communication was effective, there were still thousands of kids sleeping in schools that night due to the realities of the road conditions and gridlock.
I think a key question that must be asked is what could have been communicated that wasn't? Drivers waited hours stuck in traffic only to realize they were waiting to cross a bridge that was closed. Could some of the gridlock have been lessened if the authorities could text information on road closures to users on nearby streets? Many commuters were completely unaware of the declining road conditions and left too late make it home that night. Broadcast text messages to commuters alerting them of the deteriorating road conditions could have been very valuable.
Cellular Network: B+
This one is hard to grade. For several hours on the 28th, it was difficult to make or receive phone calls. Sometimes you couldn't get a call out at all. Other times, after retrying a few times, you were able to get through. The reality was the whole city was in chaos, with 1 million vehicles in gridlock, all of whose drivers were attempting to coordinate with their families, kids, neighbors, etc. at the same time. The fact that the network worked at all is a good sign that it is able to perform in an emergency situation, even when it is at full capacity.
The bright spot was that the bottlenecks were mainly on the voice side--data and text messaging appear to have not been a problem. This is an important point, as being able to text in an emergency is arguably as important as being able to make a phone call. I might add, this brings up a whole other issue: the importance of being able to text to 911 centers and other emergency organizations, but that is another column for another day.
Business Handling of Event : Range F to A+
Obviously, in any event that catches the community off-guard, responses run the entire gamut. Let's start with the failures.
The failures seem to be in the majority during this scenario. Many businesses were not monitoring conditions, did not communicate with employees about the severity of the conditions, and by the time they did communicate to their folks that they should go home, it was too late. These people were subjected to 12+ hours in the car, with many abandoning their vehicles and sleeping in places like Home Depot--if they were lucky.
What does this have to do with communications technology? Let's take a look at an organization that got things right this week.
First of all, they have been progressive in implementing technology that allows their employees to work remotely. All workers have laptops with secure access, smartphones, and all of the collaboration tools they need to stay connected regardless of their location. Added to that are corporate directives minimizing the importance of every employee coming into a physical office every day.
None of this is new. But with the tools, policies, and training in place, it was an easy decision for management to advise their employees to telework on January 28, even though some forecasts were saying there would be less than an inch of snow. Even though schools and government agencies were not closing, they were able to tell their folks to work at home without being worried about losing a day of productivity.
Not only were their employees at home able to continue working, but they were spared the dangers and grim circumstances of driving home that afternoon/evening/night/next morning. (There are many, many people out there that will never forgive their employer for what they had to endure by making them stay all day.)
And of course, even though the city was pretty much shut down for the next two days, their folks were still productive.
As after any disaster, I am sure the various public service agencies will sit down and talk about what went wrong. (I would hope...) There were massive failures across the board, most notably involving the timely deployment of vehicles to treat the roads before gridlock ensued.
While I am sure there was some bad luck involved, along with a bit of bad intelligence on the potential impact of the storm, there has to be some serious investigation into the communications within and between the various state and local agencies that hampered the response of resources in addressing the unfolding disaster.
This event, which pales in comparison (I regret even mentioning them in the same sentence) to the scale of disaster experience from Sandy, Katrina, and 9/11, still serves as opportunity from which we can learn. We were much more prepared for this type of occurrence, thanks in part from the lessons learned from the events listed above, and hopefully will be more prepared in the future.
You can't always beat Mother Nature, but you can lessen the man-made disasters she inspires.
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