Monday, April 04, 2016


Communicating When You Don’t Know

Like much of the East Coast, we’ve been hit recently with heavy winds and their attendant damage.  On Monday the campus actually lost power for about an hour in the early afternoon as crews worked on repairing a couple of poles near campus that trees had taken down.

The outage itself was out of our control; the utility company did the repairs it when it could.  But it created quite the management dilemma on campus.

For a while, we had no idea how long the outage would last.  Not knowing made it difficult to recommend courses of action on campus.  A ten-minute outage warrants a “don’t worry about it” message.  A ten-hour outage warrants a “go home” message.  An outage of wildly indeterminate duration merits...what, exactly?

And that’s without addressing methods of getting messages out when phones, wifi, and computers are down.  Yes, we could delegate some informal Paul Reveres, but sending someone through the hallways like a town crier requires a short, pithy message.  The medium doesn’t lend itself to nuance.  “Hear ye, hear ye, we’ll tell you something when we know it” doesn’t really work.

I hadn’t realized just how much we relied on electricity.  At home, running water doesn’t need electricity, for example.  But on campus, it does; we have electric eyes to activate the faucets in the bathroom sinks, and even the toilets use electric flushers.  Most bathrooms have electric hand dryers, rather than towel dispensers.  It doesn’t matter until it does.

Some classes were able to go about their business relatively undisturbed.  If you had a chalk-and-talk class in a room with decent-sized windows, you could roll up the shades and keep going, and people did.  Others didn’t have the option, whether because of windowless rooms, the use of electronic gadgetry in instruction, or both.  Luckily the temperature was relatively reasonable, so we weren’t either freezing or wilting.  

The power came back shortly after the mid-afternoon classes started, which was a huge relief.  But it raised a question that I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help me answer.

What’s the best way to communicate when you don’t know the message, and electronic means are down?

Before the next outage, decide what a reasonable time to wait is (1 hour?). Send round your Town Criers with the message that you don't know when power will be restored, but if it isn't on by whatever-oclock classes will be cancelled. Or alternately, that you don't know how long the outage will be and a definitive decision about cancelling classes will be communicated by whatever-oclock.

Our campus has an emergency texting system. I'm guessing one needs electicity for that, but I suspect a car battery could be enough to send out a message. Or, you know, a cell phone dedicated to that. A lot of our students have cell phones, and could get a text even when electricity is down.

You'd still have to decide what the message was, of course.
Here at UCSC, we have frequent power failures (generally about 10–20 unplanned ones a year, plus 2–5 planned outages for maintenance). It is very annoying, but you learn to cope. Every major building has a backup generator to provide emergency power for safety lighting (and crucial scientific equipment, like -80°C freezers). The phone system has its own uninterruptible power supply (or used to—that might have been changed in last year's "upgrade"). As long as the cell phone towers have power (from the emergency generators or backup batteries) word can get out to all the students, anyway.

We don't cancel classes for power failures. Last Friday the power went out in the middle of my lecture, and we just opened the door to let in enough light to (barely) see the chalkboard. The emergency lights came on after a minute, and the power was restored after about 10 minutes. There was another power failure on Sunday, so I had to reboot my compute when I came in today.

Last quarter I got stuck in an elevator during a power outage, and found out that the dispatch center can't handle emergency calls from that many elevators stuck at once—they never answered the phone. Luckily the elevator was stuck at a floor, rather than between floors, so could be opened manually.
We also have an emergency texting system that is located in a different part of the state so if our power goes out, our texting system is likely to remain functional.
We would do what Bardiac describes.

Our campus servers are on a UPS, so there is no intrinsic limitation on our ability to send out emergency text messages UNLESS they all have to go through our communications office. The phone system is in that room, so it should work along with other emergency systems. In addition, all top staff (including IT) have college cell phones.

As for closing campus, that is above my pay grade. We sometimes overreact when they have too long to think about it, but are slow to act in the case you describe. We had one like yours, where it turned out a transformer needed to be replaced, and the general rule was that you carried on if you could but there was no penalty for students who couldn't get to campus because of traffic snarls. (If two or three traffic signals are out, getting to our campus gets quite difficult for students or faculty.) Power came back about the time they were thinking about canceling the next class.

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A battery operated bullhorn may be a bit of over-kill, but it will work when your campus PA system is down due to power outages....
A small emergency generator for the PA system and any internal intercom system would be more elegant.
In terms of what message to send when you don't know anything else, a simple "We don't know the details but we're on it" has the advantages of being honest and reassuring people that Something Is Being Done. Admittedly that might mean having to send out two messages or more for a given event, but these cases just don't come up that often.
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