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Technology can put consumers in control of emergency information

Technology can put consumers in control of emergency information

Al Germond

Moving beyond how area agencies plan to deal with the next Great Blizzard, government officials are now reviewing the way they communicate with the general public when extraordinary or emergency conditions develop. Most of us were frustrated sitting snowbound in early December as we clamored for news about the epic storm or tried to find out when the streets in our neighborhood would be cleared. Justifiably stirred by the public’s rancor, area agencies are now actively working on ways to improve the information flow. Web sites and the Internet are going to be the key players.

The traditional media have been built around the classic paradigm that “pushes” the information they’ve gathered and then selects a schedule according to their operating policies. Using television as an example, each station adheres to a format that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the viewers’. This means we may miss something important. How many times have you tuned in late only to miss an important morsel, knowing it may be a while before you hear it repeated?

Thanks to the Internet, cell phones, satellite radio, global positioning systems and other new technology, things are starting to change. Already there’s a paradigm shift from “pushing” to “pulling.” In the simplest terms, you’ve been “pulling” for information ever since you first called the recorded message line at the local movie theater to find out when the next performance of, say, Ben Hur would begin. “Pulling” information is now something we command every time we visit a Web site. The difference between turning on the TV and accessing the Internet represents a shift from the media source pushing information to the viewer pulling the specific information we’re looking for.

This shift isn’t lost on area officials, who are looking for new ways to get the word out, and the Internet communications revolution in local government is just beginning. There’s an important obligation, however, because the responsibility remains with each agency to keep each of its sites updated so we aren’t pulling information that’s stale or just plain wrong.

I remember when the City of Columbia began taking its first, tentative steps on the Internet almost a decade ago. A committee was formed to develop a strategy, and it was obvious the only thing limiting use of the Web was the technology of that time and how much the city was prepared to invest in hardware and support personnel.

From now on, emergencies will bring an increasing number of us to the Web sites of agencies such as the Boone County Joint Communications Center, city and county public works departments, local and area utilities, the State Highway Patrol and MoDOT, to name just a few. Since the Internet is largely visual, these agencies will work best using maps and diagrammatic commentary to show road conditions, the status of plowing and other remedial activities.

Here’s something on the horizon that’s more exciting and has the potential to save lives. Pushing will still be in play when it comes to warning us of an approaching tornado. Most of us have cell phones, and as we move around, the interconnected network of towers knows where we are because each phone periodically broadcasts a distinctive locating signal. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of cell phones might be in a given area where a tornado is being tracked. Anyone with a cell phone in this area could then be warned of the twister’s approach by commands broadcast to each phone as initiated by the National Weather Service and the Boone County Joint Communications Center.

Have you ever considered how blind you may be to weather conditions when you travel? Unlike airline pilots, who must continuously monitor the weather because it’s an essential part of their jobs, highway motorists rarely pay much attention to what they might be driving into. How often do we naïvely sally forth into what could become an abyss of life-threatening, hazardous weather somewhere down the road? That’s why some of us who are weather wary wax enthusiastic about the radar feature that comes with some Global Positioning System receivers.

A family I know set out for Colorado a week before Christmas. Several hundred miles east of Denver, they ran into an ice storm in Western Kansas. Unaware of local conditions and what was ahead, they were also frustrated by local radio, which wasn’t “pushing” them any meaningful information.

Then they called me on their cell phone. Checking the National Weather Service radar on the Internet, I told them they would soon leave the storm behind, with a clear shot into Denver, and that’s exactly what they encountered. Their call indirectly pulled what they needed to know from the Internet and saved their vacation. As technology and the Internet develop further, we’ll all be pulling away from what’s been pushed at us for so long.

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