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Managing the Cone of Uncertainty

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-08-31
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I am oftentimes amused by the terminology that various groups apply to phenomena within their industry. Entertainment has given us the memorable “wardrobe malfunction.” “Social media” and “viral” both made it onto a recently published list of overused catchphrases. And even public safety has managed to create “persons of interest” to dress up and sanitize what we used to generically call suspects or subjects. But, after watching countless hours of coverage of Hurricane Isaac, I believe the meteorologists have captured the award for their prolific use of “cone of uncertainty.” Now, never mind that this would make a great name for a grunge band, and that it actually refers to an engineering term from the 1950s; it has a nice way of saying, “we have no idea whatsoever where this storm is going to go.” It’s sort of like trying to predict a long field goal attempt. It may go straight down the middle. But, it might also go wide right or wide left. It could even hit the goal post. Who knows?  Just in case the cone (it should really be a  “slice” because we’re actually talking ground track and not some 3D model here, right?) of uncertainty doesn’t relieve them from all the blame, they also get to draw multiple ”storm tracks” on that big map in a number of colorful crayons apparently wielded by someone with a very unsteady hand.

But, during this coverage (which included by the way a 20 minute mini-drama of a single reporter graphically describing eleven telephone poles that had fallen down on the side of an empty street sometime earlier in the day) I became aware of what the job description should be for everyone in public safety communications: “We manage the cone of uncertainty!” Because, folks, that’s what we do. Every call taker and telecommunicator never knows what the next call will be. More than likely it will be something relatively minor. And then again, it can be the lead story on the six o’clock news or CNN. Either way, they must be ready. Supervisors face the same challenge. What will the call load be like tonight? How many people will I have? Anybody out sick? This uncertainty resolves itself somewhat throughout the shift, but as the famous saying goes, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” That last call can be a doozie.

For managers and directors the cone never ends. If it’s not budget season, it’s vacation season. Or it’s time to replace or upgrade a system. Or to try to get more people. The list goes on. But we can never stop managing the cone. With the recent incidents of active shooters still fresh in our minds, I felt reasonably lucky that the ones we have managed locally over the past few years were typically domestic in nature and resulted in a comparably small number of fatalities and injuries when viewed side-by-side to others around the nation. That is until one of my supervisors emailed an article from the local media concerning a threat that had been neutralized before any damage was done.

The story described a college student who had been a military sniper, who reportedly had detailed thoughts about mass-murder. Additionally, his sister had been supposedly killed in a car accident by a police officer’s wife. Part of his plans apparently included killing a police officer in his or her take home vehicle, then killing the rest of the family, too. Fortunately “the person of interest’s” girlfriend reported this, and he was taken to a facility for treatment. According to the news report, “authorities said an investigation turned up no real threat.” Still and all, in my book, this ranks as an uncomfortably close call (or in airline parlance “near miss”), and a reminder to all that this “cone of uncertainty” we manage can be very broad, yet with a very fine line between “us” and “them” when it comes to meeting a disaster face-to- face. Our brothers and sisters in the Gulf Coast have seemingly spent more than their fair share of time in the cone during the past decade, and those in Colorado, I’m sure, are ready to trade places, as well.  The plain truth is that we all pretty much reside inside the cone on a regular basis. And about that, there is no uncertainty. We manage it for a living.

Our PSAP Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

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