Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Being Prepared at Work and Home

Imagine going to the bank and not being able to withdraw funds because the teller could not confirm the balance on your account. This was the very real scenario presented to me once when I was working as a support analyst. What turned out to be interesting about this incident had nothing at all to do with the solution for this particular problem.

Actually, I’m sure the solution was exactly what mattered most to the bank people and ultimately we did get that squared away. For me, though, what was interesting was the side comment that had been made when the customer was sharing with me how grave a matter this was. It turns out, that during this period of time there were still some banks working through paper processes but the computerized processes worked so much better and so much more quickly that the paper processes had been abandoned completely… so completely, in fact, that no one knew anymore how to manage the process other than by computer even though this was still technically possible at that time. This was fine, of course, until the network communications went down, or power in general was lost, taking down computer access to the ifnormation they needed. Then it wasn’t so fine because no one knew how to deal with such situations.

Fast forward to my years as a manager… Although my own experiences with power outages in the workplace have been a rarity, they have occurred. Funny thing about power outages in a contact center – the phone usually still rings! Of course, there are many things one cannot do when there is no computer access: changes cannot be made to accounts, software patches cannot be sent, and knowledge management solutions cannot be researched, to name but a few. We can, however, still talk to customers and often we can provide them with at least some answers. Moreover, if we take down all of the appropriate information, we can even handle their requests later, once power is restored. The trick, of course, is to know what information is needed and to capture it in a way that can be used later.

It takes knowledgeable people to respond intelligently to requests for help – this is largely true even when the knowledgebase is accessible and is particularly true when it’s not. And good customer service is good customer service, no matter what else is happening. That part is simple. When we prepare for emergencies, however, how often do we think in terms of what capabilities and responsibilities remain and how we will conduct ourselves under diminished capacity? Do you have paper data entry forms that can substitute for the real thing under mildly difficult conditions that diminish your capabilities as a contact center (or whatever it is that you do) but don't completely inhibit your ability to work? Will your agents have light to work with? What else can you do and not do if you lose power or lose phone service? What is the best way to respond to your customers and let them know what is happening and that you are still available – and to what extent?

Disaster preparedness is important at home too. Have you thought about the sorts of emergencies, large and small that are predictable enough to prepare for and how you would meet those challenges? One realization that has dawned on me recently is how important communication will be. The one serious earthquake I’ve experienced made it quite clear to me that ensuring each other’s safety is one of the first things on anyone’s mind. First there was my staff – in my case, there were thirteen at the time and having been their manager for just shy of a week, I didn’t even know all their names yet so the effort of tracking everyone down and ensuring they were all okay kept me occupied for a bit.

Once I was reasonably assured of their safety, my next thoughts went to my family. This was when reality truly struck – everyone else in the region had the exact same thoughts as mine and while cell phone towers may have been mostly intact, the many calls for service had completely jammed the network. For all practical purposes, no one was reaching anyone by cell phone. As one person put it to me recently, there are only so many dial tones to go around.

All of which brings me to present day – communication is how work gets done, it’s how communities and cultures are formed and preserved and it’s how service is provided, whether that service is business related, or health and safety related. It occurs to me that whether we’re talking business or neighbor-to-neighbor, the ability to communicate with one another is one of the most important capabilities worth preserving. To that end, I was glad to see that my city recently sent out an all-call to licensed ham radio operators to come participate as volunteers assisting in communications support. Feeling as I do about communication and disaster preparedness, I enthusiastically responded even though I have yet to actually go on the air with my own license. In fact, I’m starting to get rather excited about participating to some extent in the upcoming Field Day. Maybe the small person in my life would even be interested in joining me. It seems to me that anything we can do to spark and preserve an interest in Amateur Radio with the newer generations is a good thing.

During my first meeting with my mentor, I also found out about his efforts to organize his neighborhood to help look out after each other using the handheld radios so many of us use for camping trips, amusement parks, and skiing. His theory is that if they can all talk to each other, they can help each other out where needed and if they can talk to him, he can coordinate any necessary communications outside the immediate area with his ham radio gear.

I would need to get my own gear set up to take it that far but my family does have a pair of the FRS radios we could start using and I’ve decided to start forming a neighborhood NET in my area. Small person has most definitely been enjoying learning to use the radios and I like the idea that he’ll know how to use them responsibly as well as having fun.

Quite frankly, I’d never thought before of how important these handheld two-way radios could be in an emergency. And in not thinking of them as a resource, it also never occurred to me what preparation might be necessary to maximize their usefulness in such situations. Fortunately, there are a few resources out there on the internet.

Some best practices I’ve gleaned so far with regard to emergency communications:

  • Agree on a channel with your family to use in the event of an emergency – it has been recommended that we all set aside FRS channel 1 for emergency use only; a secondary channel to move to for extended conversations would probably be a good idea as well to keep channel 1 as open as possible.
  • Keep your rechargeable batteries recharged and fresh non-rechargeable batteries on hand in the event your radios are needed for extended periods of time.
  • Know how you will reach emergency services should you need them and know how you will ‘make do’ until they are available.
  • Know how you will use your radio in an emergency situation.
  • Include your neighbors in your emergency planning so that you can all help look after each other should the need arise.
  • Keep your radio with you (even in the car) in the event disaster strikes when you are somewhere other than at home.
  • Test your plans periodically.

Of course it’s also important to be prepared in other respects beyond communications. I favor building up supplies a bit at a time. If the effort is so scary and overwhelming that we never even begin, it won't serve its purpose. I encourage everyone to do one thing today to be more prepared for whatever emergencies concern you most; even if it’s a small thing, it means you’ll be better off should some emergency situation arise than you were yesterday. And if you keep building on that, your chances (of surviving, thriving, etc.) will be that much better.

If you have emergency preparedness tips for home or business, it would be nice to share these around. Send them to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and I'll post what's useful for everyone.

What can I do that increases my likelihood of success?