Friday, October 02, 2009

Disaster preparedness

In January 2000, the news and editorials were full of people being dismissive about Y2K and of the people (like me) who'd spent the previous few years working on preventing a crisis that, in the end, amounted to nearly nothing. I wanted to throttle them. All that work preventing it was why it amounted to nearly nothing. I've written previously about this, but it's come up again in a new way that made me realize something that should have been obvious.

Recently at work we had yet another meeting talking about what we needed to do about H1N1, and one person said something like, "Maybe this whole swine flu thing is going to fizzle out just like Y2K did," and I got my dander up (silently, of course) about that. Instead of getting credit for averting a catastrophe, we just get dismissed as Cassandras, complaining about a catastrophe that was never going to happen. And now do the non-technical people really know that the catastrophe was real, and was potentially as bad as we'd been saying?

But it's that very lack of technical expertise that points up the problem. In the months and years before Y2K, we were doing two entirely different efforts about Y2K. On the one hand, all of us tech-savvy programmers were frantically working on trying to avert Y2K by fixing code, replacing systems, installing upgrades, and doing tons of testing. On the other hand, everyone, technical and non-technical alike, was doing lots of work to prepare for the catastrophe, in case it wasn't wholly averted. Making contingency plans, setting in stocks of supplies, and ranking the importance of assets and services.

To a programmer, Y2K was mostly about averting, with a smaller amount of time spent on preparation -- and that time was unwelcome, and struggled against. We were constantly railing against the contingency planning meetings that took us away from time spent on actually fixing the problem. But it was all one thing.

But to the non-technical people, it was all about the preparations for a crisis that never came. Sure, they knew that geeks were in server rooms doing things they thought were important, and refusing to commit to whether anything was really fixed, but it had the same unreal quality that most of what we do has to them. To them, Y2K literally was about a big buildup to nothing.

Today, the same duality exists in preparations for H1N1, but it's a different asymmetry. Health professionals are involved in a lot of the "avert" side, particularly those working on the vaccines; but in a way that has no parallel in Y2K, all of us are part of the "avert" process, because we have to use safe practices like washing hands, staying at home when ill, and limiting contact with the potentially infected. Those efforts are as important as vaccines in containing the spread. We're all part of both the avert and prepare processes this time.

If H1N1 turns out to not be that big a deal, will people be just as dismissive as they were about Y2K? Probably. But maybe, if the public education effort is successful enough, people will realize that it wasn't a dud, it wasn't never going to happen: they'll realize it was averted because they were part of the process of averting it. Probably not, but one can hope.

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