Friday, October 4, 2013

Communication: Plan On It

You're at work when The Big One hits. You're safe, but power lines, cell towers, and highway overpasses are down all over the state. The phone on your desk seems to be working, but every time you try to call your spouse and kids you get an "all circuits are busy" recording. Outside, your cell phone claims to detect no service. You drink some water from the water cooler in the lobby, change your shoes, apply some sunscreen, shoulder your get-home pack, and begin walking home. You walk past commuters in stand-still traffic. You steer clear of a pedestrian overpass that's collapsed over a major intersection. You see several pillars of billowing smoke, and figure some structures are on fire. As you walk by a strip mall, you see some employees boarding up the windows of one store, and note people starting to congregate in the parking lot.

And all the time, you're wondering: "Is my family safe? What if they're not home when I get there? What if the house is on fire, or if there's no electricity? Should I hang out until the family gets there, or should I walk over to my parents' house across town in case they went there? Or should I look at the kids' school?"

This is you without an emergency communications plan.
A communications plan is a plan you think about and put down in writing before an emergency ever comes along. Each person who is involved--each family member, friend, or neighbor--should have a copy of the plan, along with any gear and supplies the plan calls for them to have. As a result, each person will be prepared to communicate when normal methods aren't working, and will know what the others in your party will be thinking, what assumptions they'll be holding, and to a limited extent what they'll do when The Big One hits.

Predetermined rally points. Of course, even having a communications plan does not guarantee you will be able to communicate. Airwaves may be jammed, key people may be out of town or injured, or equipment could malfunction. For this reason, begin your plan with what to do in the absence of communication: identify a series of predetermined rally points, and instructions for their use. For example, everyone could plan on meeting at home; but if home is out of the question (if it burned down, for example, or if it falls within the contamination zone), the secondary rally point is someplace local (like Granny's place across town). If the whole town is affected, the next rally point is a day or two's walk from town--perhaps at someone's home 15-20 miles away. Have a rally point out of the region, out of the state, and it wouldn't hurt to even have one out of the country.

This part of the plan may call for Dad or someone to linger an extra day, if it's safe, to gather stragglers. It may call for the first responsible family member to get home to leave a note at home then go to the elementary school to bring home younger family members. It may call for someone to try to get cash from a bank on the way home, or to try to top off the gas tanks of family vehicles. The point is for nobody to be missing and unaccounted for, and to provide focus to any search-and-rescue actions.

Along with a list of rally points, devise some primitive way of communicating along likely routes: in grease pencil or crayon, for example, on the back of stop signs at key intersections, or a message in chalk on the curb. Include some identifying mark or symbol so your family will know a message is for them. You'll certainly want to leave messages at predetermined places at any rally points you reach but abandon.

What to communicate. Your messages should identify the members of your party (so those who follow won't keep waiting for someone who's gone on ahead), note any injuries or symptoms, and communicate your departure date, destination, planned route, and any other information that may be helpful. Example: "Members 2, 3, and 5 OK. Left 3/27 for FEMA camp in Springfield, going through Smalltown. Food, water, and batteries in cache."

Radio communications. In an earlier article I contrast and compare FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies, CB radio, and amateur radio. I'm a fan of amateur radio because it is potentially longer-range and because hams are more likely to think about backup power and are more likely to be familiar with their radios, antennas, and radio communications in general. Whatever you decide, now is the time to get any equipment called for by your plan. If you need to get a license, get it--it's better to familiarize yourself with your equipment and with radio nets now than to squirrel them away for an emergency when licenses won't be checked.

Reliable longer-range radio communications require going beyond the Technician Class license. If you get a General Class license and join a RACES or ARES team in your area, you should end up well prepared with battery backup power capability, alternate power sources, NVIS gear, and operating procedures.

At any rate, your communications plan should note who has what radio equipment, and specify the frequencies your group will use to communicate with one another, and the schedule on which you'll be on the radio to make contact. By informal convention, FRS/GMRS channel 3 (462.6125 MHz, sometimes channel 11 on ICOM GMRS devices) and CB channel 3 (26.985 MHz, USB when using SSB) are used for general emergency communications. This 3-3-3 plan calls for being on channel 3 for 3 minutes at the top of the hour every 3 hours--3am, 6am, 9am, 12nn, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, and midnight. (Others call for being available on the radio at the top of each hour instead of every 3 hours). By following a schedule where radios are only turned on for a few minutes every few hours, battery life is lengthened and people have opportunity to travel, hide, forage, etc. in between.

Frequencies and bands for emergency amateur radio communications should probably follow EmComms procedures worked out by groups including RACES and ARES teams in your region. They will probably be set up with local repeaters and transmission conditions in mind. Following the conventions of other radio operators in your region greatly improves your chances of finding others with whom to communicate. This in no way hinders a group from using their own predetermined frequencies for purposes of privacy or OPSEC.

Disaster message services. Even if your group does not plan to to rely on radio communications, it is worth knowing that many ham radio operators are willing and able to deliver messages to just about anywhere on earth. Those involved in the National Traffic System are practicing for this every week or even every day and are actually delivering "radiograms" right now, today. If you happen to come across a functional amateur radio station, consider sending a message to family and friends who may be worrying about your group in the disaster zone. Remember the minimum you need to communicate: Your messages should identify the members of your party (to clarify who may yet be missing), note any injuries or symptoms, and communicate your location, next destination and planned time of departure, planned route, and any other information that may be helpful.

The Red Cross' Safe and Well service helps families separated by disaster re-connect with one another, a much-needed source of relief and comfort. You may come across a Red Cross unit offering this service. Your loved ones outside the danger area can search for you by name, and pre-disaster phone number or adddress.

Receiving useful information. So far we've considered delivering useful personal information (left behind at an abandoned rally point, for example) and two-way person-to-person communication via radio. You'll also want a reliable way to receive information about the disaster, evacuation orders and major evacuation routes, planned government responses, etc. I recommend your communications plan includes one or more radios powered by battery, hand crank, or solar panel. Depending on the model, these radios can receive AM, FM, and NOAA weather channels and alerts.


Contact list. The final page of our family emergency communications plan is a contact list for the household of each family member and loved one--not just locally, but around the world. Include the names of each member of each household, their street address, their telephone and cell phone numbers, their e-mail addresses, their Facebook and Twitter names, their Skype and Google+ ID's, and their radio call signs. Some of those households are rally points. Who knows what information channel will be the first to open, and with whom?

If you want to keep group cohesion and to stay in touch with your loved ones in a disaster, you'll need for people to have the appropriate information, gear, and supplies in place before then. And to make sure you have the right information and gear and supplies with the right people, you'll need to have an emergency communications plan. The time to develop that plan is now.

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