Posted on 24 December 2012.
by Scott James, December 24, 2012, 6:00 a.m.
The night was silent. Nani and Bill carefully crawled out of their bed, reaching underneath to pull out their hiking shoes. “Was that an earthquake?” Bill asked. Nani replied, “Either that or we just got hit by a semi truck.” They heard glass shattering in the background. Nani flipped on her flashlight. “Wow, what a mess,” Bill said as he looked around their bedroom. As they made their way to the front door with their Map Your Neighborhood guide, Bill tore off the last page. He affixed it to the outside of their door showing a large “OK” to anyone passing by. Nani tried both her cell phone and landline telephone. “They’re both out.” she told Bill. “Looks like our communication systems just went seriously low-tech.”
The desire for information is a common response after a natural disaster, which is made complicated when the disaster is widespread. Emergencies will knock out our normal means of communication and, unless we’ve done a bit of pre-planning, we’ll be left in the (informational) dark. In a widespread emergency, normal communications (telephone lines, cell towers) may not be restored for weeks to months, as we’ve seen in the aftermath of recent earthquakes and tsunamis. The information needed after an emergency ranges from broad (how widespread an area was affected, which dictates how soon help will arrive) to narrow (two people on our street need medical attention ASAP). By ensuring you have two-way communications to and from both your hyperlocal area as well as your region, you can make significantly better decisions for yourself, your family, and your neighbors.
Emergency Communication Strategies
As we learned in Dr. Johnson’s Map Your Neighborhood program, communications begin right away after a disaster with the placement of an OK sign or a HELP sign on your front door. Neighbors who have gathered and then sent out a team to canvas the street will use these signs to focus quickly on those most in need. Since we cannot rely on any technology communication such as telephones immediately after an emergency, this low-tech solution is both appropriate and efficient.
People Power. Signs are one low-tech communication option. Bicycles, horses, and even a teenager from the cross country team are other possibilities for helping communications flow after a disaster that has blocked our roads from vehicular travel. Your daily walk will give you a good idea of how far you can travel by foot to solicit information from and share news with neighbors. Go! Bainbridge is an organization dedicated to expanded nonvehicular travel and transportation around our town and a great resource for anyone walking, biking, or horse riding.
Two-Way Radios. We can also leverage high-tech solutions during post-disaster Map Your Neighborhood safety sweeps, such as short-range two-way radios (also known as walkie talkies) that have been pre-charged or stored with fresh batteries removed but attached. Fast communication via these short-range devices is particularly important for more dense housing like apartment complexes where shouting for help to Map Your Neighborhood teammates will be ineffective as well as for exurban neighborhoods with more distance among homes. Two-way radios are a useful addition to any go bag and have value in nonemergency times when cell phones are not reliable, such as during hiking.
Long-range two-way radios can transmit over distances from 5 to 20 miles. However, for both short- and long-range radios, keep in mind that the manufacturers grossly overstate the distance of effectiveness. Any obstruction to the signal (trees, walls, vehicles) will cause interference and lower the effective range. Having at least one of these long-range radios in each neighborhood is important for communication with other neighborhoods and the emergency professionals in the area who are gathering information and coordinating relief efforts.
Some disasters we can see coming—like a hurricane or a flood—and take appropriate measures. But many disasters, such as tornados or earthquakes, don’t announce themselves in advance. It’s for those unknowable emergencies that communication before the event is so important. A small bit of discussion and planning ahead of time can prepare a neighborhood. Part of that pre-planning includes equipping your street with the correct communications gear, since your local Ace Hardware will sell out of walkie talkies within the first 30 minutes of an emergency. When looking at emergency weather radios and two-way communication devices (both short-range and long-range), remember to think through how to power those devices in a long emergency. After Hurricane Sandy, we saw citizens creating and sharing solar panel recharging hot spots on street corners. As we discussed in our article on energy, one set of chargers can power an entire street full of devices.
Let’s Talk Ham. The use of both short- and long-wave handheld radios is important for family reunification plans that have wisely designated an out-of-area contact person to help coordinate the gathering of family members in a disaster area. But what to do when both cell and phone systems are down and you are trying to reach your out-of-area contact person? Ham radio bridges the gap between local communication and long-distance communication in a no-power scenario after a natural disaster.
Thankfully our town has an active radio club that can connect the various parts of our small town even when our phone and cell systems have become overwhelmed and failed. David Gutierrez of the Bainbridge Amateur Radio Club will work with the fire department in the aftermath of a disaster to reestablish communications across the town and beyond. We currently have ham radio installations at several neighborhood shelters. Through Prepared Neighborhoods, we are recruiting more with the goal of having a shelter within walking distance of every neighborhood in our town. Post-disaster, after they secure their own family and immediate neighborhoods, local ham radio operators are to walk to their nearest shelter equipped with ham radio equipment so they can help with communications. These shelters—such as Islandwood and the Senior Center—are being set up by Prepared Neighborhoods to provide for winter warmth and year-round communications with the emergency professionals in our town.
Emergency Operating Centers. On Bainbridge Island, the fire department is responsible for training city employees in emergency preparedness, creating an Emergency Operating Center system, and encouraging Map Your Neighborhood preparation among citizens. I asked Assistant Fire Chief Luke Carpenter about our emergency procedures. He said, ”The Emergency Operating Center (EOC) system exists to provide continuity of service for the governance of our island. It is a locus for information after a large disaster, for both the collection and dissemination of information. In an emergency, all community needs like public works come into our EOC. If our local resources can handle it, the resources get dispatched. If we can’t handle the request locally, we push it up to the county’s EOC, and the process repeats there with them pulling from their county resources. From there the request can quickly go up to state and federal levels for fulfillment.”
Carpenter gave an example specific to Bainbridge Island and the system of neighborhood shelters we are currently setting up: “Let’s take fuel trucks as an example. If we lose power, the warming center at the Senior Center is activated. But if we lose power for an extended period, their propane-fired system will need to be refilled as it only has a six-day supply of fuel. That pending need comes to us, and our EOC looks at our facilities. Because there is no propane storage on the island, we would pass that request on to the next communication node off our island: the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (KCDEM) EOC. The propane would likely be delivered via barge if the bridge is down and the ferries are not operating.”
Bulletin Boards. Years ago our town had a bulletin board system in place for distributing information in situations in which Internet and telephone systems were inoperable. An acrylic holder was mounted outside Ace Hardware to protect the paper flyer that would be posted as part of that system. The system has since fallen by the wayside, but it could be resurrected quickly if citizens were to take responsibility for the its maintenance. An map of these bulletin board locations could be maintained by the Prepared Neighborhoods team for the use of our officials in an emergency.
Backup Communications Systems. To further facilitate communications, Prepared Neighborhoods has contracted with the software development team Recovers to create the backup systems that our town would be able to use—with or without power—for communications among neighborhoods, our shelters, and our professionals at the fire department. Bainbridge Island is the first Recovers project to be worked on before a natural disaster has struck (most of their clients are in the middle of experiencing a flood or the aftermath of a tornado). The Recovers team has been quite responsive to our numerous change requests for tweaking their online tools to better fit a team working on preparedness rather than a team responding to an existing emergency.
Caitria O’Neill is the CEO and Co-Founder of Recovers. We talk every week as we’re building out the Bainbridge Island site on their platform. I recently asked her specifically about the importance of communications.
Both disaster preparedness and recovery depend upon the ability of a community to communicate with itself and the outside world. Every community has a wide range of technical capability. There will be extremely tech-savvy households standing right next to a resident who chooses not to have any devices that connect to the Internet. When trying to reach people with information on how to prepare and recovery information in the case of a disaster, you have to keep this in mind. A working system has to continue to function when the web goes down in an emergency.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we saw a few amazing communication systems spring up. New York City residents with web connectivity and tech expertise scraped the Internet for information, updates, and explanations of how to access aid. They then shared this information using a variety of social media tools and other software. People who saw it could print off a resource sheet and distribute it in one of the “dead zones” to those who could not access and collect this information themselves. Gaps in Internet access were covered by volunteers who knew that they could help by walking around with information on foot.
Really, the tools don’t matter as much as the plan. You can train residents right now where to find information to print and distribute after a disaster. You can leverage a door-to-door volunteer who is using an iPad or paper forms for data collection. The important thing is to start planning and to assume different levels of tech capability for each neighborhood.
Local Media. In addition to leveraging communications experts from afar, we’ve also turned to experts in our own backyard to help our emergency preparedness professionals quickly and efficiently get out the word during and after emergencies. Our local go-to source for daily news on our island is called Inside Bainbridge, published by Julie Hall and Sarah Lane (disclosure: Sarah is also one of my editors!). Just as other local citizens have their own Step 10 in the Map Your Neighborhood procedures, Sarah and Julie are on the hook for helping our fire department and local ham radio operators with navigating social media and texting for the dissemination of emergency response information. I asked Sarah about her preparation for post-disaster communication:
With our increased awareness of what happens to media in an emergency, in some ways it feels like we are returning to an older time, a time with a town crier or a posted broadside. But really what’s happening is we are learning to be more agile and to use the wide array of tools available to us. We start with our website. When that goes down, we use our phones and post via Twitter. When the cell towers are down, we turn to ham radio and send out news that way.
I feel we’re very fortunate to have a forward thinking Fire Department at the helm, inviting us to participate in the process early on, well before the emergency, because they have a good understanding of the options and the way the different technologies work and then stop working. They understand that commanding an audience and knowing how to deliver the news are essential, no matter what the medium.
Starting the Conversation Before the Disaster
Citizens can alleviate much of the pressure put on our preparedness professionals in a time of widespread crisis by coordinating efforts directly among neighborhoods to leverage our huge range of collective skills. As we discussed earlier, one Map Your Neighborhood street may have three medically trained citizens living on it, and another may have two structural engineers. When a disaster strikes, after each Map Your Neighborhood street has ensured its initial stability, residents can begin to communicate with other nearby streets to asses their needs. Being able to swap a nurse for a structural engineer greatly benefits both locations.
Communication is one of the building blocks to good relationships, whether it is with your spouse or the rest of your neighborhood. The success of your Map Your Neighborhood project relies on open dialogue with the rest of your neighbors at least once a year to update one other on any special needs, changes in the home, and additional skills you’ve learned that year that can be of benefit to the neighborhood.
Meeting the Neighbors. We do our Map Your Neighborhood annual get-together as a post-holiday party each year, part of a “we can survive another winter together” set of holiday parties, usually set in January after the business of the season has begun to wane a bit. We’ll spend about 45 minutes discussing Map Your Neighborhood and the rest of the evening socializing. But that’s just for our street. Bainbridge Islander Leslie Marshall has spent several years combining individual streets in her Commodore neighborhood to form a cohesive Map Your Neighborhood group spanning 65 homes.
People have busy enough schedules that it is difficult to find a time that works for even a majority of the invitees, let alone everyone. What has worked for me is to go to every home in our neighborhood, explain to the adult who answers the door just what the MYN and Prepared Neighborhoods initiatives are all about, and have that person fill out the questionnaire right then. If no one is home when I visit or if it is just not a good time for a conversation, then I keep returning until I can have the chat and collect the data. (Some of the conversations continued for an hour or more!)
If the person declines to participate (which happened for just two homes out of 65), I thank them and do not return. This takes time but has the benefit of being good exercise in the fresh air for me! It also helps build trust.
Some neighbors have, after our conversation, walked with me to their next-door neighbor to introduce me. I have gotten to know each of our neighbors personally through these conversations, and we chat briefly when I pass them by on my daily walks. We made an email distribution list, which has a secondary use when dealing with the rash of burglaries in our neighborhood about two years ago.
When I decided that our list really needed updating this year, it was much easier to collect the data—everyone except the newest neighbors knew me at least by name, and this time the data were going to our highly regarded Fire Department. Many thanked me for keeping us all informed and spontaneously offered even more assistance if any emergency did arise. This kind of approach obviously takes a lot of time, but the results are impressively thorough. And it is a great way for a newcomer (which I was when this all started) to get connected in a deep way to one’s community.
A Community Conversation. Communications about neighbors taking care of neighbors do not need to be limited to Map Your Neighborhood conversations. As we’ve been discussing in previous articles, the connection between emergency preparedness and sustainability in our neighborhoods spans multiple topics, from water and food to shelter and transportation. Bringing interesting conversations to the forefront on a wide variety of topics important to citizens is the passion of Bainbridge Islander Ann Warman. Ann’s most recent venture, VillageSpeak,is a forum in which local is put at the forefront. “Local issues, local leaders, and local discussions” is the tagline for this forum that cultivates listening, learning, and engaging on issues important to the heart of a small town.
VillageSpeak was formed as a nonpartisan organization, to bring people together from all across town, connecting diverse voices and ideas. We wanted to deepen neighborly exchange and create a regular forum to explore local issues from many different perspectives before challenges hit the fire, not just during and after. Connected community gives character to place. It’s through open conversations that town involvement deepens, that mutual concern is elevated, and that new paths are discovered, cultivating our community as a responsive, safe place for individuals and families. Building community is a process that spans the lifetime of a village and its people. Our town thrives when inclusion, collaborative discussion, and civic participation are honored and encouraged.
As Ann described, conversations within our neighborhoods about preparedness are not just relegated to what we do during and after an emergency. To build true resiliency and create true sustainability in our community and our individual lives, we can take action now. Rather than just lamenting the latest natural disaster or foolishly thinking “it can’t happen here,” consider taking action instead. Start with a discussion with just a few of your neighbors about checking in on each other after a disaster. And enjoy the peace of mind those new relationships bring.
Scott James is an entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and the founder of Prepared Neighborhoods, a program of Sustainable Bainbridge. More details at www.scottjames.me. Join the conversation about this series in the comments below or at www.preparedneighborhoods.com. Photos by Richard Topalovich, Matt Debnam, teofilo, Alan Turkus, Peter Fristedt, Jim Champion, and Bill Stilwell.