Any emergency management expert or public safety worker, for that matter, will tell you that the biggest “issue “(code word for -problem) faced by responders during a disaster is communications. I get it. After attending and trying to manage literally dozens of multi-patient incidents over a 20 year stint as a paramedic supervisor, I can tell you that sending and receiving even the simplest, briefest packets of information amidst chaos is tough. So many times, a casualty update, a request for additional ambulances, the destination of some victim or other, the emergence of some additional and pressing “issue” would get lost in the “fog of war.” It turns out that the acoustics in the “fog of war” are lousy indeed. Why does this matter ? Because in the absence of information- things either don’t get done or get done with minimal situational awareness (code for – having a clue). This means that results will be less than optimal, less than efficient, sometimes with life-altering consequences for somebody.
I can also remember the instances where I was not a responder but a “respondee” to a disaster. Communications were a problem. Maybe you’ve been through some similar event in your community. Perhaps a case study will help draw the parallels.
Last month in our rural/suburban community, we had a wildland fire break out near our home. The blaze, likely ignited by downed high voltage lines raced up the grassy slope of a small mountain within about 2 miles of our house. Some residents in the area were forced to evacuate but the damage was minimal by California 21st century wildland fire standards – 150 acres gone, no structures, no injuries. As it turns out, the real problem encountered, for homeowners at least, was communication. The problem was two-fold: information coming in and information going out.
On the inbound side of things- information about the blaze arrived almost haphazardly. Many residents became aware of the situation by receiving a county-generated text alert informing them that the residents of 3 streets were being told to evacuate. For those folks-playing information catch-up meant a stressful series of phone-calls to neighbors and friends, body surfing social media sites for updates, phone calls to harried fire department dispatchers, tuning into computer applications that feature hundred of local first responder scanner feeds and attempting to decipher firefighting jargon. Even in the absence of disastrous outcomes, the community felt and expressed a high degree of frustration.
Sending information out also proved to become a challenge once cell service became disrupted due to the power outage. In the absence of an easy flow for the communication, dozens of neighbors elected to drive away from an uncertain hazard to a known refuge- the next town to the east.
The problem of communication was magnified exponentially to the north of us in the worst wildfire in California history- the Tubbs Fire that affected Sonoma and Napa counties. Even dispatch centers suffered breakdowns around creating alert messages for residents. A year later- emergency managers are still working to correct failures and build capacity that did not exist in 2017. Managers after analyzing and testing the various technologies for alerting communities realized that no one communication device was sufficient. Legislation was recently signed into California law that mandates training and technology to establish a working emergency alert system in every county.
What can be done to stay in contact with people and events that matter during an emergency ? In my semi-rural community, the citizen volunteers who form a kind of disaster council have developed a walkie-talkie network that employs two types of radios. On one level, a fleet of basic Family Radio Service (FRS) radios allows neighbors to communicate within a limited range of about 1 -2 miles. (despite the advertised 20+ miles). Each “village” consolidates messages and relays them to a much further recipient communications center (20-30 miles away) with the assistance of mountaintop repeaters and a second layer of more powerful UHF portable radios.
For folks with vehicles, the AM/FM radio tuned to a local news channel offers a reassuring link to late breaking changes in the incident.
Finally, the really prepared family (like -even more so than ours) has a clear-cut Communications Plan for emergencies. Kids in these highly evolved, prepared households know specifically who to contact out of the area to give and receive information. They also know exactly where to make their way to if separated so that a reunion can happen ASAP. We’ve told our loved ones to meet up at the nearest post office where we know we can count on a clean well-lighted place to post messages and check in with neighbors.
Like so many aspects of preparedness, communications capability will always be a work in progress. There will always be technological and human failure points that can arise on a moment’s notice. But putting some energy into setting up your own system of communication, adding some layers of backup, and then practicing the strategy that you elect, can go a long way toward easing the worry before, the fear during, and even the damage after whatever emergency will inevitably come to visit.