Monday, April 21, 2014

8 Knots to Master

Working with ropes or lines is old technology, and literally thousands of knots are known, many with specific applications that make particular tasks infinitely easier and more reliable. Knots connect, attach, hold together, hold in position, and secure. As useful as knots are, it is important to understand the features of each knot for safety's sake and for maximum efficiency. Some knots can kill you if they slip, while others are useless if they don't slip.

Square Knot. The square knot is great for tightening a rope around something bulky, as when wrapping a package. It can be used for tying two ropes together, but isn't completely reliable for that application; see the double sheet bend, below. (The square knot is also known as the reef knot.)

Double Bowline. A double bowline lets you tie a loop in the end of a line that won't slip. A noose is fine for many situations, but if you're hauling a person up out of a pit, for example, they'll appreciate not having the loop tighten around their body. Use this knot any time you want to tie a loop that won't cinch tight around a tree, person, climbing ring, etc. (This is a more secure version of a standard bowline.)

Adjustable Grip Hitch. This versatile knot is used to create a knot that can slide freely along a line, but grasps the line when pulled taut. It is useful for stretching hammocks or erecting tents, to adjust the tension on the lines connecting the tent material to an anchor point such as a peg driven into the ground. It can also be used in climbing: (1) as one climbs, the adjustable grip hitch is moved up or down the line; should the climber fall, the hitch cinches up and catches the climber; or (2) Use a couple of lengths of rope as stirrups attached to a line with adjustable grip hitches, then alternately stand on one stirrup while sliding the hitch along the line for the other stirrup. The adjustable grip hitch is also useful for adjusting the tension on line tying down a cargo. (This is a more effective version of a taut-line hitch.)

Trucker's Knot. The best knot to secure that cargo--that lets you pull the line tight and keep it tight--is the quick-release trucker's knot.

Alpine Butterfly Knot. Use the alpine butterfly to create a fixed loop in a length of rope, to use as an attachment point for other lines or from which to hang something, or for using rope as block and tackle.

Double Sheet Bend. Use a double sheet bend to tie two ropes together, even if they are of different diameters. Murphy's law tells us that no matter how long your rope, it's not long enough; the double sheet bend lets you extend your line by adding another length to it. The double sheet bend can also be used to tie a line to something like a metal ring; consider the ring or eyelet the larger of the lines. (This is a more secure version of a sheet bend.)

Sheepshank. The sheepshank addresses another result of Murphy's law: a rope that is too long, or that has a weak point. One could cut the rope to length, or cut out the weak point, but what if one wants to preserve the rope's original length for future use? A sheepshank literally ties up some of the rope at some point between the ends, drawing them closer to one another for a shorter line. A weak point on the rope can be tied into the middle of a sheepshank such that none of the force on the line is applied to the weak point.

An easy and reliable fishhook knot.

In order to keep things simple, I've limited my list of essential knots to just these eight; I figure most of us will figure out ways to kludge together work-arounds for lashings, constricting knots, nooses, and the like. What did I miss that you would consider essential? Let me know if your comments please, and provide a link to a Youtube how-to video.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Understanding Chemical Hazards

An active rail line runs less than a block from our home. Six blocks the other way runs a major interstate highway. While it's unlikely we'll ever be directly affected by a hazardous chemical spill from a rail car or road trailer, I have to admit our chances are higher than for most. Hazardous chemicals can explode, burn, and poison. As I'm trying to factor this into my plans, here's what I'm coming up with.

If you come across what may be a chemical hazard, the important thing is not to rush in to help people who may have fallen. Stay upwind of the hazard, and make efforts to keep away from spilled liquids, vapors, fumes, smoke, and even suspicious containers. First responders will typically set up some kind of perimeter at this time to keep others out of danger.

Consider how the material might spread--now might be a great time to throw some sandbags in the gutter, for example, to keep a mysterious liquid from flowing down the street or down a storm drain. Just because you cannot see or smell anything does not mean invisible and odorless vapors or fumes are present, so note the wind conditions and any ventilation systems which may be in play. Some chemicals (including solids!) react with water to produce heat, explosions, or dangerous fumes.

If you can, identify the material. Look for a diamond-shaped placard or orange identification panel. Placards often have a symbol and/or a hazard class or division number in the lower quadrant which roughly corresponds to the most significant risk associated with the hazardous material. Orange identification panels often have a hazard identification number in the top half of the panel and a 4-digit identification code in the bottom half. Here's a guide to decode the division number from a placard or the hazard identification number from an orange panel:
  1. Explosives (placard may be orange)
  2. Gases (placard may be green, red if flammable, or yellow if corrosive)
  3. Flammable liquids (vapors) or self-heating liquids (placard may be red)
  4. Flammable solids or self-heating solids (placard may be blue)
  5. Oxidizing (fire-intensifying) effect (placard may be yellow)
  6. Toxic (poisonous) or infectious
  7. Radioactive
  8. Corrosive
  9. Miscellaneous dangerous substance
  • Doubling of a digit (i.e. 33) indicates an intensification of that hazard
  • When just a single digit is sufficient, on an orange placard that digit is followed by a zero (i.e. 50)
  • A hazard identification number beginning with the letter "X" means the material will react dangerously with water (i.e. X88)
  • When 9 appears as the 2nd or 3rd digit there may be a risk of spontaneous violent reaction
The 4-digit identification code and/or name of hazardous material will be useful when reporting an incident or seeking help.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) publishes an Emergency Response Guidebook that expands on the material presented here, and provides safety recommendations for all forms of hazardous materials, which may be looked up by name or identification code. The safety recommendations include recommended perimeters for small and large spills, recommended protective gear, special instructions in case of fire, special instructions in case of leakage, and first aid for those suffering from exposure. Keep one of the Guidebooks in your vehicle, and consider whether you may need one at home, at work, etc. A PDF version of the PHMSA Emergency Response Guidebook is available free online.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Satellite Technology for Emergency Communications

When disaster strikes, key communications infrastructure can be destroyed or overloaded--the telephone system, cellular communications, even 2-way radio that relies on the power grid. Some plan on "bugging out" to locations that are beyond the reach of communications infrastructure even at the best of times. Can satellite communication technology be relied upon to fill this gap?

In radio communications, radio waves carry communications from radio to radio. Many of us who prepare for disaster are frustrated, however, by the constraints of radio communications. Hand-held transceivers in particular are limited in range to just a few miles; in order to significantly extend communications range, one needs some combination of higher power (meaning you can't rely on that little battery inside your hand-held transceiver) or better antenna (meaning you can't rely on that little antenna attached to your hand-held transceiver). While one can communicate for longer distances with low power, typically this requires wavelengths that call for antennas that just aren't practical to use while one is on foot. And even if one does take the time to stop and string up a low-bandwidth antenna, the range depends on bouncing the signal off layers in the atmosphere, meaning one may be able to talk to someone in another country, but not to someone just 100 miles away.

In satellite communications, satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) can handle communication transmissions directly to hand-held devices on earth. History has shown us that when disasters destroy or overwhelm land-based communications infrastructure such as phone lines and cell towers, satellite communication can remain as a viable option. So satellite communications are a proven solution.

There are several satellite form factors of interest to one preparing for disaster: satellite phones, personal trackers, and Internet hotspots. Satellite phones are much like mobile phones, and indeed there are multi-band phones out there that allow one to make calls or send text messages over one's choice of mobile and satellite networks. A key advantage of a sat phone is the ability to make a call from remote parts of the world where no cellular coverage is available. There are a number of satellite communications systems out there, notably Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar. Before signing up for a service plan, check a provider's coverage area and reputation and make sure you're satisfied.

A key difference between mobile phones and sat phones is that sat phones basically require one to be outside with a clear line-of-sight to the satellites to function. Mountains, tall buildings, and trees can all get in the way. This factor alone is probably not a deal-killer, however. So why aren't more preppers championing sat phones?

One factor is cost. Sat phones and other communications devices typically cost hundreds of dollars and that price can approach $2,000. Now that many people are used to paying hundreds of dollars for a smart phone, however, a $260 tracker or a $450 sat phone may seem a reasonable investment. On top of the initial cost of the communications device, however, one must pay for satellite communications service, as part of a post-paid plan, complete with rollover minutes, or using pre-paid phone cards. Plans are available that cost less than a dollar a minute. Again, as we accustom ourselves to spending hundreds of dollars a year on mobile phone plans, a $150/year plan doesn't seem excessively steep. But that $150 a year barely gets one 10 minutes a month. Sat phones are typically able to connect with a land line or mobile phone--but at a higher rate. Calls to sat phones on rival networks also cost extra, so try to get your whole calling group on the same network. Pre-paid cards require an activated sat phone, which means an emergency pre-paid sat phone must be continually fed a diet of pre-paid cards to keep the minutes from expiring and to prevent the phone from being deactivated.

The real issue for people preparing for widespread disaster scenarios is the extent to which satellite communications depend on land-based infrastructure after all. Some satellite networks actually use ground stations for call switching, though in the Iridium network much of the switching is done up in orbit at the satellites themselves. Normal activities such as activating sat phones, changing plans, paying bills, etc. require land-based infrastructure to complete. This means that to be relied upon at all in case of emergency, one must have the satellite communication devices active and costing money before the emergency, and to the extent the emergency impacts the land-based infrastructure, the emergency must be done by the time one needs to take action to keep one's device active.

Personal trackers focus on being able to communicate one's location to emergency responders. These devices, popular with outdoors adventure enthusiasts, primarily communicate with GPS satellites to fix one's location, and with communication satellites to transmit that data to emergency responders. In recent years, limited 2-way text communications have been added to these devices. A good example of this sort of device is the DeLorme inReach; unlike some trackers, the inReach allows for one to communicate directly to others with inReach devices, and not just via the Internet or mobile phone. As with sat phones, however, trackers require normal land-based conditions (with telephones, stores, the Internet, or the like) to set up. To keep an inReach active starts at nearly $145 a year (at the 10 text messages included per month rate; normally one would bump up the service when planning to do some outdoor activities) and can run as high as $960 a year. With prices like that, unless one really wants the GPS data (which many preppers would actually prefer to avoid) one is tempted to pay a bit more up front for a normal sat phone and enjoy voice and e-mail capabilities.

Satellite Internet hotspots create a wireless local area network, permitting devices such as computers and smart phones to communicate by satellite with the Internet. One could make a Skype call over such a hotspot, for example, or transmit documents or photographs. Once again, stiff service plan fees apply.

Assuming the costs of satellite communication are not prohibitive for you and you have a way to keep your satellite devices' batteries charged, satellite communications might be something to consider for the sorts of disasters that hit somewhere on earth all the time: storms, floods, localized earthquakes, etc. But satellites are just as susceptible to such dangers as electromagnetic pulses, civil disorder, or government control as most other communications technologies.

With all the vulnerabilities that remain with satellite communications on top of its setup and maintenance costs--land-based activation, billing and payment, and even switching, plus vulnerable to EMP, corporate, and government interference, I consider amateur radio to remain the best option for emergency communications. I'm willing to trade the preparation and knowledge required to have reliable emergency communications for the convenience and costs of satellite communications. Amateur radio equipment is affordable, operation is virtually free, and though solutions to individual communications problems may require planning ahead, the solutions are there.

Related articles:
Two-Way Radio Communications
Seven Advantages of Amateur Radio
Communicaton: Plan On It

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