Friday, September 24, 2010

The World Isn't Coming to an End -- It's Only an #X24

If you were killing time on Twitter around noon Eastern Time today, you might well have gotten the impression that there was something big going on in California.  Shortly after noon, news filtered out of an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale near the Aleutian Trench, south of Alaska.  A tsunami warning was issued, and a few minutes later a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit California.  Then came the tsunami.  If you weren't paying close attention, you might have been alarmed, but none of it was real.  It's part of an exercise running today and tomorrow called Exercise24, or X24.

The purpose of X24 is to test the use of various tools on the Internet in the event of a major disaster.  X24 has been using Twitter (with the hashtag #X24 and clear warnings of "This is a test.  This is not real."  They have a page on Facebook.  They are using Google Docs to exchange requests for aid and match providers with requesters.  The idea is to see what works and what doesn't, and whether there are uses for social media and the Internet in such a situation that folks might not already have thought of.

Exercises like this one are used in emergency response organizations all over the world.  Sometimes they are simulated using actors to portray victims or criminals, and sometimes they are done entirely virtually, merely sitting around a table and talking through what should happen next.

The idea is that having a great plan is wonderful, but you won't really know if you have a great plan until you try to use it.  The problem is, if you need to use it, it's really too late to discover it's not all that wonderful.  In addition, being taught or trained how to do something in an emergency is different than actually doing it.  For example, if you had a choice between two surgeons with exactly the same education, one who had done your procedure five times this week and one who had only watched other people do it, who would you want?  Simulations also serve as inoculation training for first responders.  They introduce various traumatic possibilities to people in a relatively controlled way.  When a real emergency hits, there are fewer elements that the responders' brains have never encountered before.  This makes them more resistant to the effects of the trauma exposure, and more able to stay calm and do their jobs.

There are two truths about exercises like this.  Truth #1 is that something will happen or not happen during the exercise that no one, in all of their planning, ever thought about.  This is, in some sense, the entire point.  By running a drill, you can discover what is missing from your plan.  Truth #2 is that, no matter how extensive your drills are or how many you have, during an actual emergency something will happen that never happened during the drill.  There are, in turn, two reasons for this.  First, every emergency is different and you can't possibly simulate every possible scenario.  Second, people behave differently in an actual emergency than they do if they know it's just for practice.

X24 is an interesting exercise because it uses the Internet -- and hence the whole world -- to practice in.  The organizers should be cautious, however, in leaning too much on this exercise to answer specific questions about how the Internet would handle an emergency.  I strongly suspect that the number of people retweeting the #X24 tweets and posting information to Facebook, as well as looking for information on emergency and news sites, during the exercise is a tiny fraction of the number who would do so if an actual tsunami hit California.  You can tell from this exercise whether you can use Internet tools to share information, but until it actually happens we won't really know if those tools have enough capacity to make it a good idea.


Nance said...

I am so glad I didn't stumble into those messages! I'm a big fan of the work at San Diego State and of work done there by the Navy in crisis management exercises and communication, but I'd have freaked, because that's where the people I love are!

New to your site, but glad to be here.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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