In the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, The Captain famously tells prisoner Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Fans of the classic film know this doesn’t end well. But egregious communication failures don’t just happen in the movies. Here we count down five catastrophes which might have been avoided through today’s advanced communication technologies.
1. The Titanic
The ill-fated ship’s wireless operator was warned of icebergs by a communication from a nearby ship, but was so preoccupied transmitting personal messages from Titanic passengers to loved ones back home that he never actually delivered the warning to the ship’s captain. Had a system existed which communicated urgent messages directly to the relevant party, the Titanic might have dodged that fatal iceberg.
2. Hurricane Katrina
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005, 100,000 of the city’s 500,000 residents were still in their homes. Of these, 1,800 died. While the mayor had called for a mandatory evacuation, not everyone was aware of the severity of the situation. While it’s impossible to say what might have happened with a well-executed disaster response plan, a coordinated communication system with built-in redundancies might have helped disseminate critical information, accelerate the evacuation process, and save lives.
3. September 11th
A number of communication challenges plagued this terrible day, including issues with the building’s communication infrastructure, lack of communications between first responders, and the overloading of phone lines. Many of the people who died in the Towers did so because they were still inside when the second plane hit. Mass notification systems — along with the many means through which to deploy essential information, including everything from text to social media — represent a new way to get people the information they need when they need it.
4. The Virginia Tech Shootings
On the day of the country’s deadliest shooting rampage in which 32 people died, the first emergency message from the university did not go out until nearly two hours after the first victims were killed. The email message advised students to “Please stay put,” and omitted critical information, such as that fatalities had occurred and that the killer was still on the loose. Experts agree that a prompt message, more comprehensive information, and multi-channel communication methods might have led to a different end.
5. The Indian Ocean Tsunami
When the second-largest earthquake ever recorded generated the massive tsunami that devastated the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, more than 300,000 people died and one million were left homeless. Unfortunately, the majority of these countries lacked effective disaster plans and early warning systems which might have lessened the disastrous consequences.
While there’s no way to know how any of these events would have transpired had today’s communication tools been available then, we can hope that future potential catastrophes may be averted not only by the existence of modern technology, but also by our foresight to use it to its full capacity.
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