Running a Hotline without Power

By Michael Walters, Legal Hotline Managing Attorney, Pro Seniors, Inc. and CERA Project Specialist

powerlines.jpgCincinnati, other than the occasional flood or tornado, is thankfully not prone to natural disasters.  However, in 2008, the remnants of Hurricane Ike caused massive power outages throughout the Cincinnati area.  Certain locations, including my home, were without power for a week.  Pro Seniors was without power for two weekdays.  There have been numerous other shorter power outages during my tenure as manager of the hotline at Pro Seniors, the Ohio statewide senior legal hotline.  Even a one-day disruption in power can cause serious problems in scheduling, and it can inconvenience dozens of clients who were expecting a call to discuss an important legal problem.  This one aspect of disaster recovery allows our hotline attorneys to call clients, even when our office’s electrical power is out, rendering our network and case management system non-functional.

One caveat is that our procedures can only be used if cell phone service is available.  Without working cell phones, it would simply be impossible to call clients.  I would also add that our procedures are designed for a hotline which primarily uses remote hotline attorneys.  The logistics of having multiple attorneys making cell phone calls from a central location with no power would probably make using these procedures much more difficult.

1) Use an automated case report that is emailed to home email addresses:

Pro Seniors generally schedules appointments approximately two days in advance.  That means that as of close of business on Monday, the scheduled appointments for Wednesday are probably already known.  Tom Bedall, the Managing Attorney at Pro Seniors, is a master at using Crystal Reports.  Crystal Reports allows us to create reports using data in our case management system.  These reports can then be uploaded to the Crystal Reports Server and scheduled to run automatically at a future date and time then be emailed to groups of users.  So every morning, in my home email, I receive a pdf report showing all scheduled Hotline appointments, sorted by date and attorney.  The report is automatically emailed to several management employees at their home email addresses.  This allows me, if necessary, to individually call hotline attorneys on their cell phones and give them the name, telephone number, scheduled time, legal problem, and case number for each of their scheduled appointments.  Another point to note is that we uploaded all staff home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses into a password protected staff area of our public website for 24/7 emergency access.  In case of an emergency, e.g., if our server is down so that no one could access our case management system, we could have several staff members call multiple hotline attorneys with their hotline appointment information, or alternatively email it to them.  This allows the attorneys to at least make the calls to the client, even if notes and time have to be added later.

2) Utilize the ability to email to the case:

Most case management systems can be programmed to allow automated emails directly to the case notes.  For example, for Pro Seniors Pika case management system, the body of any email to [case number] will be deposited into a case note and any attachment to the email will be saved in the case documents screen.  This allows a hotline attorney, using any word processing program, to email a copy of their notes to the case.  So, if the attorneys simply choose to type case notes on their phone using their home email, those notes can be emailed directly to the case notes in the case management system.  Even if the server is down, the emails would be received later when the server is again operational.  It would thus only be necessary for the hotline attorney to later add their case time when access to the CMS is again available.  Obviously, for security reasons, use of email to the case should be limited to staff only.  Otherwise clients could potentially email irrelevant information into the case notes.

3) Use paper scheduling as a back-up plan:

In this day and age, it may be considered heresy to suggest the use of pen and paper, but that is how we continue to initially schedule clients at the front desk.  The paper system allows the intake specialist (not an attorney) to obtain the critical information from the client to schedule the appointment, and go on quickly to the next call.  The paper intakes can be added to the case management system later during a slower time at the desk, or they can be added by a different employee if the phones remain busy for an extended period of time.  On numerous occasions, the existence of a stack of paper appointments has “saved” me in the case of a typographical error in the information entered in the case management system.  The paper intakes would also provide a low-tech alternative to the automated scheduling report discussed in #1 above.  Staff members could simply pull the paper intake sheets and call the hotline attorneys to provide the information.

Power outages are to be expected occasionally at any legal hotline.  The growing availability of smart phones in many cases allows the critical functions of a hotline attorney to continue, even without access to the case management system.  Anticipation of the possibility of an outage, using automated reports, cell phones and even old-fashioned paper, can help minimize disruption of the hotline and allow the needs of the clients to continue to be served even during an outage.

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