The one thing that systems can contribute in the first place is knowledge, according to Quillinan. By analysing all the different scenarios that have happened, or trying to create those, it is possible to ask the system, ‘this number of schools have been flooded, how many people do we need to save all those children?’ and that’s the sort of thing computers are very good at. The identity of systems in crisis management is to be knowledge repositories. They have a lot of knowledge about what has happened in the past and what is happening now and can correlate between the two of them.
The other task is of course to facilitate communication. The advantage of dealing with organisations such as the police department, fire department, is that they have a very rigid hierarchy. This means that you can direct order and you have people who have a strategic overview. You have an institution of knowledge of where the different units are located, where to you can direct your resources.
Not only hierarchal information is in the focus of attention of Quillinan and colleagues, but also input from members of the public. This tends to be more chaotic and difficult to coordinate. When studying the post mortems of previous disasters, Quillinan finds that often what went wrong is that people didn’t notice something that was important. So they didn’t notice that this particular plane didn’t have enough fuel in it because a meter was broken. The cause is never this huge problem, it always tends to be very small.
Another issue is that in crisis people will tend to do what the computer tells them to do. They seem to have more trust in a computer when there is a crisis taking place; even more so than normal, thinking ‘it knows something that I don’t’, as Quillinan states it.