Friday, September 9, 2011

Emergency preparedness and antique lists redux

Moving on to the last item in my little rant about the antique-ness of most emergency 'preparedness' lists:

The #1 item missing?  The smartphone.  Lest ye think I'm off my rocker, let me explain.

The smartphone represents many things in an emergency situation.  First, and most obviously, it's communications.  Communications are so important that emergency first responders invest millions of dollars into infrastructure-independent communication systems for their personnel, so there can be little argument that it's important for Joe Public as well.

Sure, the infrastructure can fail, or be overwhelmed.  This happens pretty often during disasters in urban areas - the cellular infrastructure just can't handle the call volume.  So it's certainly not perfect.

On the other hand, some people don't even have a landline any more, and many people that do have moved on from the POTS network on to IP phones or other such rigamarole.  (The author is among the guilty.)  Those old enough to know will remember that the plain-old telephone systems were independently powered and had battery backups, so they work in a power outage situation.  IP phones and other fancy modern gimcrackery will not, which may leave your mobile as the last line of communications.

Not to mention that your mobile can be recharged from your vehicle, as mentioned above.  And even if voice calls don't work, sometimes little miracles can happen with text messages.  An SMS telling someone you're OK, where you're meeting, or what's going on can be a godsend.

For an example of where a little basic communications would have come in really handy, you need look no further than the curious case of one Aron Ralston.  Granted, in his particular situation, only proactive communication would have prevented his situation, but many disasters give little to no warning.

After basic communications comes data.  Again, reliant on external infrastructure, but if something is working then you may be able to get your phone (or laptop) onto the cell networks for news and information updates.  Not so likely, I admit.  But possible, and useful in later days when municipal, federal and emergency services may just be getting back into working order.

Even if the cell network is kaputsky, the smartphone (and, to a lesser extent, the laptop/netbook) still has its uses.

Firstly, it probably already has a list of everyone you need to contact.  Not a bad start.  I doubt you can remember everyone's phone number(s) any more.

Assuming you did some basic homework, it can also have a copy of an emergency plan.  Maybe the plan isn't any more complicated than finding Aunt Magdalene, but if it is, you can have it on there - just in case.

Next up:  apps.  (No, I'm not going to say the catchphrase, thanks.)  As cliche as it may sound, there are mobile applications for most platforms that can be pretty handy references in a bad pinch.  Witness one Dan Woolley, an American trapped in the Haiti earthquake, who managed to both put his affairs in order and survive after being buried alive.  Peripheral credit was given to third-party first aid application First Aid & CPR for helping him survive and cope.

Now, things may or may not have turned out differently had Mr. Woolley not downloaded the app.  But he does point out the single most important thing about the phone - he had it on him.  A pocket first aid kit, however, was not something he would have likely carried around, any more than anyone else does.

Without belaboring his exact situation, the fact remains that there are a lot of resources you can load into a phone.  In addition to first aid (adult and child), you can load in emergency numbers, lists of radio stations for updates, locations for muster or emergency stations, websites to access when possible (such as weather, government emergency or crisis sites), a database of emergency supplies (complete with expiration dates and reminders), lists of emergency supplies (for when you have to stock up in a hurry), and measures to take for various types of disaster.  There's even a bunch of "Emergency Button" apps that let you carry out pre-programmed actions with one button.

Remember, none of this stuff is going to be available on-line in a real disaster situation - you can't just hop on the net and get it.  Having it preloaded standalone could be the difference.  And obviously you want the phone for SMS/voice calls, once service is restored.  Being able to recharge from nearly anything should keep it going for any reasonable period of time.

(One can certainly imagine situations where your significant other may be screaming at you for playing with the phone while someone is bleeding to death, but having the information there is still better.  And it's no worse than trying to flip through the table of contents of a printed book.)

Many of these items come from FEMA, the Red Cross, and other established organizations.  Strange how although they have hopped on the mobile bandwagon, mobile hasn't made their lists yet.  I guess with all the new mobile stuff, nobody really looks at those 1950s-era lists any more.

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