The lazy man’s guide to urban emergency plans

PowerPoint uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation

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TORONTO, ON Aug 2, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The headline in the New York Times Magazine is eye-catching and funny – “Power Point Makes you Dumb.” But when you read that Clive Thompson’s article from 2003 is about the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that looked into the crash of the space shuttle, it’s not so funny.

When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide – so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. ”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the board sternly noted.

And how’s this an urban issue?

Urban emergency plans contain lots of irrelevant information – lists of contributors, jargon, lists of hazards without solutions, definitions of the obvious, and so on. Some plans run to 500 pages.

Some have surprising elements. One nice surprise is Boston’s comprehensive look at climate change. A disappointment is Barrie, Ontario’s out-of-date plan that advises readers to get help where none is actually available.

And now for something completely different. Hamilton has a Power Point presentation for our reading enjoyment. The problem is that readers weren’t in the room when the presenter spoke about the power point bullets. So, the bullets don’t make sense without the commentary.

Take these three lines:

Response in Ontario and Canada starts at the ground level – I bet response begins high above the ground in high-rise fires and well below the ground in the mining industry or subway accidents. But that’s just a guess.

No automatic call for the cavalry – Has someone disabled 9-11 in Ontario? Are mutual aid agreements a myth? Have the alarms in petro-chemical plants that are hooked up to city fire departments been banned? Are we using semaphore?

That is known, that is what we prepare for – That is what? If it’s known, could we know? Perhaps we could also prepare, if it weren’t for the unspoken.

Thompson’s New York Magazine article sums up the use of these bullet points. “Perhaps PowerPoint is uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation – where manipulating facts is as important as presenting them clearly. If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.”

But Mississauga’s emergency plan may be revealing another use. The inclusion of this PowerPoint may be the low-tech version of “I tweeted it out”. Both imply a willingness, or even a necessity, to communicate. They imply openness that one values one’s own opinion, that one has information to share. The fact that perhaps nobody understands it is beside the point in this information age.

In this age, building a website, sending an email, posting an Instagram picture, adding a hyper-link, blogging, and hosting a webinar are all considered “professional” communication. These tasks can be listed in another PowerPoint presentation used during performance appraisals to show the boss how much has been done. That PowerPoint can then be used to obtain a larger budget.

Few senior managers with budgetary control will discuss the content of these social media efforts, ask how many received them, or how many responded. That’s good because there’s no good research on how much good a communications plan does to keep urban residents safe. The fact that communications plans do some good is mainly a guess.

But these activities may actually show compliance with laws. Laws in most jurisdictions require cities to have emergency plans, make them public, update them regularly, and test them. There’s no law that says they have to be received by anybody, understood, or make sense.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safe Cities.

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