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?