I have been writing a bit in recent days about technology in workers’ compensation, thanks primarily to my attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas two weeks ago. Much of what I have written, and what I am still intending to write, is theoretical; a look at what “might be” in the world of comp given the new technologies soon available to us. This is often the case when looking at innovation and technological development. The discussion is often forward looking, towards applications that only exist in the minds of people envisioning potential – that which may someday become a reality to benefit us all. However, this weekend I experienced a real life application of a pretty impressive technology, and it certainly left me with a mental image about what a little imagination can do when given the right tools. What I experienced was a service called the Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA. 

It was around 3:00AM Sunday morning here in Sarasota, Florida. I was awakened by both the sounds of heavy rainfall and thunder in the distance. I thought nothing of it, other than the fact that such heavy thunder is rare for this time of year. I had started drifting off to sleep when I was jarred awake by my cell phone, which, despite being set for “Do Not Disturb”, lit up like a Christmas tree and emitted a sound akin to that of a fire alarm. I grabbed the phone from my nightstand, wondering what on earth could be wrong with it. On the screen read a message. It said, “There is a tornado warning for your area. Seek shelter immediately.”

Now, having lived in Ohio for a few years I know the difference between a watch and a warning. A tornado watch means things look potentially icky outside. A tornado warning means somewhere a mobile home park is being cleared for new models. I also know that Florida tornadoes, rare as they are, are relatively tame in comparison to their Midwest cousins. On a good day they can barely wrinkle a carport. I debated for a moment just ignoring the warning and returning to my blissful slumber. I thought better of that, made sure my wife was awake, and told her what the alert had said. We turned on the television, and the situation immediately gained more urgency.

Our entire region of west Florida was being inundated with this storm. Doppler radar had detected significant rotation in a cell just making landfall a few miles southwest of us. The weather forecasters were telling us that it appeared serious and projected a northeasterly path, directly across our location. 

I can tell you that we have spent some time discussing and planning for an eventual hurricane. We were not, however, in any way, shape or form prepared for a tornado. What transpired over the next 10 minutes probably best resembled a Three Stooges movie. For starters, with a tornado, you discover that you do not have time to attach hurricane shutters to your house. Second, in a tornado experts on TV keep telling you to go to an internal room on a lower level. We don’t have an internal room; windows, sliders and french doors abound at our house. We knew one thing. We did not want to stay on the second floor. We grabbed one cat upstairs (dragging him from under the bed where he was hiding from the thunder) and headed for the first floor.

I picked up my iPad, as the radar app on it is actually more detailed and easier to read than that on the television. We decided to gather our two remaining cats and go into our guest bathroom, as with the smallest window it has the least exposure for serious breach. I was already holding cat #1. My wife picked up cat #2 and we entered the bathroom. I stayed there with both cats while she went to collect cat #3. She returned and as she entered, cat #2 escaped between our legs. She went to retrieve cat #2, and upon her return cat #3 escaped. 

Time for plan B. I left my wife with cat #1 and headed for the garage to retrieve three kitty carriers. Now finding ourselves in the kitchen, we began the arduous task of stuffing panicked kitties into their carriers. In the background we heard the television weatherman confirm a tornado touchdown with damage reports just a few miles from our home. Cat #1 was the first in a carrier. Cat #2, a fully armed but gentle cat we’ve nicknamed Freddy Krueger, tried to bring the dining room rug with him. Once extricated from that, he was secured (read: stuffed) into his carrier. Cat #3, a hefty gal named Posey, was the last one secured, with her carrier ingress most resembling the dragging of a large Christmas tree through a narrow doorway. Top end first.

Once all were secured, we decided to sit on the floor in the kitchen, behind some cabinetry, as the semi-protected windows faced a screened lanai, and whose drawn shades offered a modicum of protection. 

As we sat there neither one of us gave thought to the piles of dishes and glassware sitting in the cabinets on the wall over our heads. Oops. 

As the next brief minutes passed, we got word that the tornado might have lifted. On the radar we watched the cell pass over our location, with our house being on the southern edge of it. It would be a miss for our neighborhood, but that cell would form another EF2 tornado several miles northeast of us, and kill two people when it carried their mobile home across a road and splinter it into an unrecognizable pile of debris.

According to FEMA, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) “are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through your mobile carrier”. The program has actually been available since 2012, and today partners with over 100 cell carriers, but many of the phones in existence then were not compatible with the technology. It is something that has become more prevalent as people continually upgrade their phones. In addition to various weather alerts, the system provides “Amber” alerts when young children go missing (I've received a few of those but this was our first weather emergency).

The targeting of the service is also impressive. We had 4 tornadoes in the Sarasota area Sunday morning, with 4 related warnings issued by the National Weather Service. Two of those warnings affected my neighborhood, with the second one being issued at 4:00AM. My cell phone sounded off again on that second warning, but did not notify us of the warnings not directly affecting my neighborhood. I was impressed by the geo-targeting ability of the service.

It is a shame we cannot have a similar system for workers' compensation. Imagine how much better it would be if your cell phone could alert you to a pending crisis in a claim as the threat approached, rather than when the house was already gone. If a warning could be issued when an injured worker is feeling neglected, or even when they simply don't understand the system (which, with the exception of frequent flyers, is almost always) and seeking legal counsel as a result, it would allow for early response and preparation to prevent the worst outcome. If we could make all of our “red flags” proactive rather than reactive; if we could see them before the flag was raised, then by gosh we'd really have something. 

Alas, we do not. It seems for the time being we will have to settle for potentially life saving warnings related to weather and missing children. Still, as I mentioned earlier, much of the discussion related to technology is forward looking, towards applications that only exist in the minds of people envisioning potential. We have amazing technology. I am convinced that an early warning system for workers' comp could exist. It can become a reality. We can find a way to identify those flags before they are run up the pole.

There. I've done the heavy lifting by envisioning what can be. Now someone just has to take the simple task of making the vision a reality. Glad I could help. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some serious cat scratches to attend to…..

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