Monday, October 29, 2007

Who you gonna call?

Invoking the theme song from “Ghostbusters” seems appropriate this time of year. It wasn’t however nostalgia that cause be to think about this line, it was an op-ed piece written by David Brooks appearing in today’s Enquirer.

The ‘out-sourced’ brain covers Mr. Brooks sudden realization that his life is pretty much dictated by the information received through various electronic devices. From his GPS equipped car to his Blackberry, he feels as though he is inextricably linked to some external mind.

We’ve all seen people milling around downtown or in airports, head bent down squinting at their hand-held device feverishly typing away on a keyboard too small for a Hobbit. Who uses a map anymore when with a few key strokes on your laptop or handheld device you can Google your destination and get maps and directions?

I am no stranger to technology myself and in my previous line of work, my Blackberry was seemingly fused to my hands. As soon as someone sent a message, I was able to instantly read it and post a reply.

The ability to immediately access a wide variety of information creates expectancy, some may even say dependence, on it always being available whenever we want it. In the event of a disaster, digital information may not be available and a prudent safety or security professional needs to plan accordingly.

In responding to Katrina, military personnel and first responders quickly discovered cellular service was unavailable. A combination of power outages and damaged cellular towers prevented service from being available. Cellular devices were rendered useless and reliance on other means of retrieving and sending information had to be used.

Almost all communications now relies on digital technology and fiber optics. The broad band capability provided by this technology provides incredible speed for transmitting vast amounts of information. Despite its great capacity and speed, digital technology can only operate so long as power and the infrastructure are available. Technology works only if the necessary power and infrastructure are available. Granted not all services will necessarily be compromised (such as GPS), however imagine the increased workload for the remaining backbones as more and more users switch over to available networks for their information requirements.

The assumption is GPS will always available however depending on the nature of the disaster, for example something that generates an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), the GPS satellites may be inoperable. Or your GPS device may get damaged during evacuation. You still have to be able to navigate regardless of your circumstances.

Hard copy maps should be a part of your emergency kit. Use the maps to plan out evacuation routes in advance for leaving the area (as they did in California or as some may have to do in Atlanta). Keeping hard copies maps though means keeping them up to date. Having a map or chart that is out of date is as bad as not having one at all. Different emergencies may dictate different evacuation points. Consider if you are evacuating towards an unaffected area or merely one that hasn’t been affected yet. Identify supplies you are going to need during your trip as well as those you will need once you get there. You may not be in a situation to evacuate under most circumstances due to medical issues with yourself or family members. However, things such as damaging storms, fire, or pandemic illness may not leave you with much choice.

A communication plan needs to be in place for your family and loved ones that assumes cellular service won’t be available. You need to know who is okay and who may be hurt or missing. Identify a pre-determined assembly point where everyone gathers in the event of an emergency. Each family member should understand the conditions that would cause you to assemble (loss of cellular phone service due to an emergency or impending storm for example), what they need to bring (if at work or school, they may not have time to gather emergency supplies). Agree on a no later time to have everyone gathered at this point (take into consideration factors such as gridlock, quarantines, accidents, damaged roads, etc). This is not you final evacuation destination, merely a point that everyone knows to go to when circumstances dictate. You will also need to come up with a secondary location in the event the first is unavailable. The point is to be able to communicate with family members despite the lack of cellular phones and other digital technology.

Make sure a family member or close friend outside of your home knows you plan in the event of an emergency. Establish a way of contacting this person once you arrive safely at your evacuation point.

Consider carefully the circumstances that may require you to evacuate from your home. Don’t try to take everything in your house. Focus on food, water, supplies, medical supplies, and emergency equipment that you will need during your trip and once you get to your final destination. You may have to travel for much longer and under more arduous conditions than when going on your vacation. You may have to evacuate by foot, especially if the disaster damages roads or destroys bridges. Don’t rely on emergency workers being there to get you out, during a major crisis they may be stretched to thin to get to you. Plan on the very least to get to a point where they can safely evacuate you.

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