Friday, September 5, 2014

#NationalPreparednessMonth #2 (Emergency Communication)

September is National Preparedness Month and while being prepared is a mindset and not really something you can observe once a year, it does bring the concept into sight of the general population in an easy to understand format.Being prepared doesn't make you a Prepper, a Survivalist, or a Looneytoon.  It used to be called Common Sense. Tens of thousands of Boy and Girls Scouts recite it as their motto.  

Communicating in an emergency can be challenging at best and all but impossible at worst.When you look at past incidents such as when Super Storm Sandy hammered NY and NJ, the bombings of the Boston Marathon, 9/11 attacks, or the recent earthquakes in CA you'll find that communication networks are fragile (they are grid power dependent after a certain amount of time) and can be overloaded by volume. Communication was strained for weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina.

So, how will you get in touch with loved ones or help when things get dicey?

No power? No problem

Our telephone system has been rather independent of the power grid since it's inception.  Local power outages didn't effect land-line phones, because the switching stations sent power through the wires that carried the signal to the customer. So as long as the power was on where there, there was no problem.  If you're my age, you probably had the ubiquitous big black phone with a rotary dial that Grandmas everywhere invariably used when the power went out to call you to see if "lights were on."

Our land-line system today is basically the same, with this important difference; most phones (the unit you talk on) today require power. My wife's desk phone needs power to function. It has a 9v battery backup, but that's more to keep settings and the voice-mail message in memory than anything. Cordless phones also won't work once their battery is drained.

Cell Phones
Luckily, the battery life of our cell phones will get us through the day (in most cases multiple days if we lay off the Candy Crush.) The cellular network has backup power at critical points and usually gives uninterrupted service through short lived emergencies.  Text messages use less battery life than voice calls per amount of data communicated.  However, be mindful to be brief and concise in texts to preserve battery life (and have a better chance of the text going through during times of high volume.)

All of that said, the simple double duty wall/desk phone from Walmart for $9 may be your best bet. If the phone lines are up and if the power is on at the switching station you should be able to place a call.

Volume (or 11 is one more)

Ok, not that kind of volume, but call volume (and 11 would still be one more.)  In an emergency, the number of calls spikes dramatically. "...all circuits are currently in use..." or even incessant ringing isn't what you want when you're trying to call the Fire Department to report a fire or your sister to see if she's alright. What to do?

Be breif
If you do get through, keep your call short. Be concise. Tell them who's calling, why you're calling, what your plan is, and when you will call again.
"Hi, Mom? It's me. I just wanted to let you know I'm alright. Yes, the Zombie Horde seems to be right down the road.  No, everyone here is fine.  I'm headed to the National Guard Armory to help out. If all is well, I'll call you again within an hour either side of 8:00pm. Don't worry. I love you. Bye."
Why is it important to let them know when you will call again? Because under stress time passes slowly. 5 mins after you call they will wonder why they haven't heard from you. Then they will be tempted to try to call you to check in, adding to the call volume.

Out-of-State Contact
Counter-intuitively, lines to locations out of the immediate area are often open. Calling someone in another state can give you a common contact point and a way to relay messages that you might not otherwise have.  Here is a great example. Note the scheduled times to call. This prevents one person from interrupting the others call to Aunt Jane.  It also lessens the amount of worry sent your direction when you're not actually speaking with the contact.( I suggest you follow the link in this image to She has a great article that mirrors what I'm talking about here. I didn't see it until this was almost complete though, so...)

Texting and email
As mentioned before, texts are good alternative.  They will often go through when a call won't. It's a function of bandwidth. The amount of space on the airwaves is finite. Taking up the least amount space means you may just squeak through where a "bigger" communication might not. Also, texts are sent in short bursts and the system can "fit them in" when it gets space.

Emails are similar. Most of our phones can email. While your email system doesn't interact directly with with the cell network, if you're sending from your phone the data travels the same path as a text. However, it can be sent in "packets" or broken up into smaller pieces and sent to your email system.  You might have better luck if you are in an area with power and can get onto the internet. That way you using a different part of the communications net.

FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are inexpensive and easy to operate. Note: a license is required for GMRS radios, but not FRS. There range is limited though. The range on the package is in optimal conditions. There are NO optimal conditions in the real world. Remember the 36 mi listed on the package is "line of sight" and depending on the terrain, you could be down to a mile or two, maybe less if you're in the concrete jungle. But these could be just the thing if  you live in a small town and you want to keep in touch with those staying at home while you at work, or picking the kids up from school. They really shine when you are taking a road trip and caravaning with more than one vehicle.  They might even give you peace of mind if you have a large property and you need to go about checking on things.

HAM Radio (Amateur Radio) has a longer reach. All the way around the world when conditions are right, you have the right equipment,  and you know what you're doing. Cost can be between $35 for one of the most popular hand radios in the country (the Baofeng U5r) or multiple thousands for setups that can chat a world away. HAM Radio goes well beyond the limits of this post. I suggest you visit the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) for more info.

Here are some examples of the radios available. Check with a local radio club to see which might be best for your area and planned use.

Remember, we prepare not so we obsess over these things, but so we don't have to worry about them. Stay safe and Be Prepared

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#NationalPreparednessMonth #1

September is National Preparedness Month and while being prepared is a mindset and not really something you can observe once a year, it does bring the concept into sight of the general population in an easy to understand format.
Being prepared doesn't make you a Prepper, a Survivalist, or a Looneytoon.  It used to be called Common Sense. Tens of thousands of Boy and Girls Scouts recite it as their motto.  

What emergency is most likely to effect you is very much dependent on your lifestyle and location. In our first post for National Preparedness Month let's look at one of the most common personal disasters, a house fire. Even a "small" fire can cause enough smoke damage to ruin almost all of your possessions.

Prevention is key.

  • No unattended open flames
    • Candles are nice, but only when you are awake watching them
    • Screens on fireplaces
  • Have your chimney cleaned before the season begins.
  • ...etc
There are plenty of sites that offer great fire prevention tips. Spend an afternoon and do an assessment of your home with an eye towards prevention and escape. A pretty good pamphlet can be downloaded from

Smoke Detectors
The number one life saving thing you can do in relation to home fires is to have working smoke detectors. The cost is minimal. Some communities even provide free installation at certain times of the year.  Replace the batteries in your smoke detectors when the time changes (no excuse Arizonans. I know the time doesn't change here. Just do it when everyone else's time changes.)  9 volt batteries are cheap and you can use whatever life is left in the one you took out in something else. Test the smoke detector once a month. As a reminder, do it when you pay your mortgage or rent. Make sure everyone in the house knows what that sound means and what to do.  Fire drills aren't just for the office and school.

Know two ways out of each room in your house.
All rules have exceptions. some residential bathrooms don't have two ways out. My girls' room has window was an alternative exit. Now I just need to figure out how they can make use of it (I don't think they are string enough to open it.)

If you hear the smoke detector or someone shouts "Fire!"  Move, get out. If it's a false alarm, you can always come back. Too many people have perished after being overcome "looking for the fire."

Stay low
Taught to Kindergartners everywhere. Stay down, crawl. This is extremely important where there is smoke and hot gases. Far more patients are admitted to the hospital after a fire for "smoke" inhalation than burns. Keep in mind that hot gases produced by a house fire don't need to look black and thick to damage you lungs.

Check that door
Teach your children especially to check doors before opening them. Place the back of your hand (more sensitive than your palm) against the door for a count of 5. If it's hot/warmer than expected don't open it to look. Many have filled the room that was their refuge with hot gases and smoke by opening the door "just to see."

The rally point
Have a meeting place and male sure everyone knows it. This let's you do a headcount and prevents risking your life or the life of firefighters in a attempt rescue someone who's already out. I'm struggling with this one too. Our obvious meeting place is out by the mail box, or perhaps across the street at the neighbor's mailbox. The issue is that my girl's alternate exit takes them to the back yard and their is a locked gate between them and the rally point.

Those that can't help themselves
What should we do for those that can't help themselves. Infants (we have one of those too,) bedridden, even extremely sound sleepers. I've even identified places where my capable 6 yr old would struggle.
Most fire prevention sites are adamant that you don't return to a building on fire for anything. While this is sound advice, who can fault a parent for trying to save a loved one?

I've identified some gaps in my fire preparations (some major ones.) Do the same for your family. I'll be looking at the following

  • Picking a rally point
  • Teach my children basic fire safety
  • Looking at alternatives for them to exit their room.
  • Creating a plan to get to the baby.
After these are in place, we'll refine from there.

The emotional toll of possible injury, loss of possessions and at least temporary homelessness can quickly descend into depression and a feeling of hopelessness. If you are ever effected by a fire, accept help. Let your church help you. Seek aide from community groups. Strengthen your Faith now, to prop you up in the future.

Remember, we prepare not so we obsess over these things, but so we don't have to worry about them. Stay safe and Be Prepared