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Lessons to be learned on swift communications

"Never waste a crisis," the oft-quoted remark made last November in the midst of the global financial meltdown by Rahm Emanuel, U.S. president Barack Obama's chief of staff, is, as those things go, both prescient and cynical.

"Never waste a crisis," the oft-quoted remark made last November in the midst of the global financial meltdown by Rahm Emanuel, U.S. president Barack Obama's chief of staff, is, as those things go, both prescient and cynical.But given the wide currency it has received, more than anything it has proved how apropos it is to any number of situations.

Take crisis, emergency or disaster management communications. When they do the post-mortem in the weeks ahead, as these things are best done, many can learn much from the early hours of last week's boil water advisories for the City of Thompson and Vale Inco, issued as the result of destabilization at the company-operated water treatment plant, which provides Thompson residents with our drinking water.

Some things were clearly done right and in a timely fashion, others not quite so well, or timely, or at all.

To start, let's give credit where credit is due: The medical officer of health issued a boil water advisory for the City of Thompson "due to destabilization of the Vale Inco water treatment plant" through Manitoba Water Stewardship's Office of Drinking Water in a press release faxed to media outlets at 4:47 a.m. That's right, some unlucky civil servant in Winnipeg got to pop that advisory in the fax machine to send out at 4:47 a.m.

There was an urgent and compelling need to do so and Manitoba Water Stewardship's Office of Drinking Water met that test.

Vale Inco's public affairs unit here followed with their own fax, highlighting conservation needs, at 5:30 a.m. Again, very timely.

Less helpful was the primary mode of transmission in both cases - fax. A fax, the colloquial term for a facsimile document, is about as antiquated today as a mode of urgent communication than a telegram might be from Western Union.

There's nothing wrong with sending a fax; it's a useful hard copy backup. Anyone who works in an office, not just a newsroom, and has had to unplug-re-plug their modem knows Internet connections still fail often enough that e-mail access and online web pages are far from a sure thing.

Equally certain is the fact fax machines go unchecked or overlooked, and paper including faxes, gets lost; e-mail virtually demands our inbox attention immediately.

The reality is that last Thursday morning - Aug. 13 - thousands of Thompsonites arose to start their day with their normal routines of having a glass of water or brushing their teeth, consuming drinking water from the tap as usual, having no idea boil water advisories had been issued hours earlier.

Fortunately, there appear to have been no reports, at leas that we're aware of, to date of anyone getting sick as a result of consuming water during that time frame last Thursday morning.

The boil water advisories were on radio stations early, which was likely helpful to thousands of other Thompson residents. That's the kind of thing radio does well in performing a vital public service. The only problem with that is many people don't listen to the radio first thing in the morning anymore as an article of faith as they once did. That's not any knock on radio; that's the reality of living in a fragmented information universe where a zillion things compete for our attention - even before breakfast it seems.

Interestingly, three days before the boil water advisories, the New York Times ran a story headlined, "Breakfast Can Wait. The Day's First Stop Is Online." The story opened this way: "Karl and Dorsey Gude of East Lansing, Mich., can remember simpler mornings, not too long ago. They sat together and chatted as they ate breakfast. They read the newspaper and competed only with the television for the attention of their two teenage sons. That was so last century. Today, Mr. Gude wakes at around 6 a.m. to check his work e-mail and his Facebook and Twitter accounts. The two boys, Cole and Erik, start each morning with text messages, video games and Facebook."

Perhaps the story should be mandatory reading for all government officials before the next time - and there always is a next time.

For the record, we came in at 8 a.m. Aug. 13 and the Thompson Citizen had the story online just before 8:45 a.m., cobbled together manually from two faxes - and, yes, after we had to crawl under a desk to reboot our Internet service, which was down. Unplug/re-plug. Not bad, not great. We did our best, as did others. There are admittedly no perfect solutions, just lessons to be learned.

In wrapping up, kudos to the City of Thompson. After a bit of a slow start, although really not much behind us, they had the advisory posted online on their home page before 10 a.m. and city manager Randy Patrick sent out an e-mail (the first we received) heads-up to that effect at 10:04 a.m.

Granted it looked pretty ironic, pasted directly above Mayor Tim Johnston's usual greeting: "Thompson Welcomes You! On behalf of City Council and the citizens of Thompson, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the 'Hub of the North.' Thompson is a great place to live, to raise a family, to work, to play and to enjoy a quality of life second to none. This is an exciting time for the City and I encourage you to get involved in our community and catch the northern spirit," but while unintentionally ironic, it did the job. Better to paste it on quickly and get the word out than redesign the webpage for lack of irony.

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