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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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Suburban Home Security

At the best of times, there's a lot to protect inside your home: loved ones, comfort, peace, and all the gear and supplies to enhance your lives. When things aren't going so well, your home increases in importance as your family's refuge, shelter, and base of operations. There are always people who are willing to hurt others and take their property by hook or by crook. What can you do to secure your home? What should you do?


One line of thought leads to constructing a suburban bunker, a virtual fortress. I don't consider this a feasible option for several reasons. First, I can't afford it even if I wanted to. But more importantly, with some experience in the security industry I'm aware that there are no foolproof security measures--a determined enough professional can always find a way to defeat physical barriers, alarms, locks, etc. Each of us must do our own cost/benefit analysis and make a decision as to how much we're willing to pay for what level of security. And the price we pay is not only measured in dollars, but in social standing, convenience, and freedom as well.

I don't have to be a track champion to run away from zombies, should it come to that; I just have to be able to run faster than you. By the same token, my home doesn't have to be impregnable against attack, just less attractive than yours. Burglars (those who enter homes to commit crimes) want stuff without having to pay for it; the more you increase their costs--in terms of dollars, skills, freedom, and wellness--and the more you reduce their profit, the more their own risk/reward analysis will lead them elsewhere.

Burglars love striking at night when it's dark and people are sleeping, or during a time of day when people are gone. They don't want attention to be focused upon them. When people observe burglars in action, chances are high that someone will use force or the threat of force to imprison, injure, or kill the burglars. So one way to deter burglars is to make them believe you're at home and awake, typically by using timers to switch lights and a radio on and off while you're away.

Another good approach for deterring attention-shy burglars is to make them more visible and to attract attention with sound. Security lights left on at night or triggered by motion will shine light on intruders--so install them. Bushes and shrubs can provide concealment--so remove them. Barking dogs and wailing alarms and the crunch of gravel will do a lot to negate an intruder's attempts at stealth. When I lived in a high-crime Asian city, people had two dogs; one dog was always outside, where he could raise an early alarm should someone climb the fence into the yard. However, these dogs were typically killed by intruders, so the second dog was kept indoors to sound an alarm of his own. For home security, yappy dogs that just won't stop barking at strangers are ideal.

Security cameras are no longer high-tech systems available only to the wealthy. These days, one can order a workable security camera system online or pick one up at Costco for just a few hundred dollars. Get a system that lets you view the images--live or recorded--from a monitor installed inside your home as well as any device connected to the Internet. Make sure the resolution is high enough that you can read license plates and recognize faces at the appropriate distances. Not all cameras work well at night; get one that does. If you absolutely can't afford a good camera system, then any camera surveillance is better than none. Even "dummy" cameras that aren't operational are deterrents to bad guys who don't want to end up on the evening news.

Normally your well-lit home with your dog on the porch will be safe enough from typical intruders. But what if a neighbor's family hasn't had food or water for several days, and they know you've got a two-week supply? What if someone sees you buying gold and silver bullion and follows you home? What if the boat in your driveway and the BMW parked out front suggest there might be something inside the house worth the extra trouble? These scenarios indicate you haven't given enough care to OPSEC. Even having a stick in hand isn't enough when all a bad guy can see is the fat carrot in your other hand.

Secure the perimeter of your home by locking all doors, windows, and anything else through which an intruder might enter. When I lived in that high-crime city we went so far as to have bars on our windows (which got tricky as we also planned for escaping fires). My personal cost/benefit analysis now has not led me to install bars, as the sound of breaking glass is sufficient to alert my family and my neighbors, but I'll want those windows and doors locked shut. If you desire more ventilation through a window, there are a number of ways to secure a window in a partially open position; just be careful that the window can't be lifted from the frame entirely if you use such a device. If things take a turn for the worse, you might beef up your security with shutters or even by boarding up windows and other points of entry.

Locks work great for keeping most people out, but it is relatively easy to pick locks and to jimmy or shim many kinds of latches. In my own experience Kwikset and Master locks are easier to pick, while Schlage and Medeco locks are more difficult--but make no mistake, all of these locks can be picked. Assuming your burglar can't pick locks, your home will be more secure if you use deadbolts on all your doors. Many latches are spring-loaded to automatically retract and then latch when a door is shut; with some of these, a burglar can insert a shim to push the latch back and open the door. All latches of this type are fairly short, and often a burglar can use a pry bar to "jimmy" the latch away from the doorjamb to open the door. A properly installed deadbolt that's long enough (no shorter than 1 inch) can't be defeated by these methods.

In addition to a keyed deadbolt for when we're away from home, I like having a thumb-latch deadbolt that can only be operated from the inside as well, for when we're sleeping. There are other ways of securing your door at night--security bolts, slide bolts, door bolts, etc. Just remember that any lock or bolt is only as strong as it's weakest point. It's no good having a thick hardened steel padlock, for example, if you use a hasp with exposed screw heads for a burglar to remove. The same goes for hinges located on the outside, where a burglar can remove the pins and open the door on the hinge side. Think about what would happen to the bolt, screws, chain, etc. if the door were kicked; you don't want a secure bolt torn from the doorjamb with a pair of short screws hanging in space. If a glass panel is located near a lock, where a burglar could break the glass then reach in an unlock the door, use a deadbolt that must be unlocked from a key even from the inside.

Home alarm systems need not cost an arm and a leg. Some do-it-yourself kits work pretty well and go for just a few hundred dollars. Or sign up for a multi-year contract and an alarm service might only set you back as little as $20 a month. Any alarm system should secure the doors and windows of your home's perimeter and have options to sound a local alarm and/or alert a private security company or local law enforcement. Inside the home, your alarm system can include such triggers as pressure pads under the carpet, motion detectors, infrared detectors, and panic buttons. Don't go crazy here; too many instances of triggering an alarm while letting the dog out or getting a glass of milk, and these will be turned off anyway. But by imagining what path an intruder would take (entering a home office or entertainment room) and comparing that with the paths pets and family members would take in night-time activities (to and from bathrooms and the kitchen), you can probably come up with one or two suitable locations for an indoor alarm trigger. If you do install an alarm system, use it, even when you're at home.

Do what you can to deter theft inside the home and mitigate the damage of a successful burglary: safes (the kind that lock, the kind that misdirect, and the kind that conceal), good records, and homeowners or renters insurance all help protect your family. Locked cabinets and safes are no more impenetrable than home security systems, but they can help keep honest members and guests of the household honest, and deter intruders who don't have a whole lot of time to get in and get out.

Consider creating a safe room inside your home to protect the members of your household from attackers. Many intruders expect all the hardware to be securing your perimeter, and are not prepared for a room that can resist their attacks even for just a few moments. The best ones I've seen are concealed behind hidden doors. This is a great place to store your most important documents, part of your stockpile of supplies, and your firearms safe. A safe room doesn't have to be big and comfortable--it can be made from part of a walk-in closet or the space under the stairs, with just a bucket for "hygiene."

Should you ever find yourself the target of people who have triggered or bypassed your alarm and breached your security or otherwise intruded uninvited, you must realize they have evil intentions. Part of "being ready" means to mentally prepare yourself ahead of time for the ramifications of such people bursting into your home. I believe the best plan will leave you with options to hide in a safe room, escape to a nearby rally point, or defend your home and your family with force.

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