When Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, nobody in my family could get in touch with my 93-year-old grandmother. She lives alone, she doesn’t have a cell phone, and her landline was down. Was she safe? Did she have enough food? What about her medications?
Ironically, from Seattle, I had a wealth of information about New Jersey at my fingertips. Using text messaging—the only communication available—I shared what I knew with my father and my aunt. Roads were not clear enough for them to reach Grandma. The power was completely out in each of their towns. The good news: Temperatures were expected to stay above freezing.
After two days with no contact, I texted a friend who lived close enough to check on Grandma. He visited and confirmed that she was fine, and I relayed the news to rest of the family.
That week, my family and millions of other people learned important lessons about using technology to stay safe and healthy in a disaster.
Texting is your best betText messaging is one of the biggest changes to hit the disaster planning scene in recent years. “In the past, we advocated having an out-of-area family contact because local phone lines would be jammed,” said Debbie Goetz, Emergency Preparedness Training Specialist for the Seattle Office of Emergency Management. “That’s still a good idea, but as we’ve seen from recent disasters, texting can often be a better way to try to get in touch with the people you care about.” Text messages use less bandwidth than voice calls, so they’re more likely to get through overloaded networks.
Disaster management professionals recommend making sure all family members are comfortable using text messaging. It’s a lesson I wish we’d all had before Sandy. Even my father didn’t contact anyone for a full day after the storm passed because he’d never texted before.
For seniors, simplified, large-button cell phones can help ease some of the stress of learning the new technology. And for grandparents, don’t forget that there’s an everyday bonus: Today’s phone-call-phobic grandchildren are a lot more likely to respond to texts.
Have a power planTo benefit from mobile technology in an emergency, powering up has to be part of your disaster plan. Numerous options are available such as car chargers, charging cases, and portable power solutions. “Whichever you choose, the important thing is to make sure you change your planning picture accordingly,” Goetz advises.
Know where to go for informationEven within a disaster zone, a vast trove of information can be available. Many state and local governments and utility companies use their websites to post real-time updates on outages, traffic, weather, and other hazards. To locate these sites, start with a quick online search of “emergency management” for your city or county. Regular Twitter or Facebook users can follow local police, fire, and utility agencies that post frequent updates.
New mobile apps from the American Red Cross are powerful resources for both disaster planning and recovery. Earthquake, tornado, hurricane, and wildfire. apps as well as a shelter finder and first aid (including pet first aid) tools provide vital instructions with or without connectivity. There’s even a one-touch “I’m safe” function that makes it easy to broadcast your status to loved ones when cell service is available.
The key to getting the most from these resources? Get to know them before you need them. Bookmarking your power company’s outage map or downloading the department of transportation’s traffic app is a lot easier when you’re not in a crisis. Plus, you’ll find that a lot of this information can be incredibly useful on a day-to-day basis.
Don’t forget basics and backupsFood, water, first aid supplies, and basic equipment like flashlights are still the first line of defense in a disaster situation. For nearly a week without power, a transistor radio was my father’s constant companion for everything from updates about gasoline availability to simple entertainment. And even the best-laid plans require backups. If you’re separated from essentials like prescriptions or insurance cards, a cloud backup system can give you quick access to critical information. But you can’t wait until you need it to try it out. Set up a system and practice accessing it before you’re in an emergency. Also, an emergency planning toolkit can really help you get a jump on disaster preparedness.
Responders raise the barFor disaster response workers on the ground, technology has opened up a new world of opportunity to provide timely, effective support where it’s needed most.
“We couldn’t do what we do without technology,” says Rachel Sawyer, Communications Associate at All Hands Volunteers, a group that helps communities around the world clean up and rebuild after a disaster. From the moment the first response team arrives at a disaster site, staff in seven or eight time zones have a constant flow of communication moving among their mobile devices, laptops,Twitter, Facebook, and cloud-based software.
Responders share damage assessments and photos, and they receive work requests and important weather and infrastructure updates. Tools like Crisis Cleanup and Google Crisis Response™ service help them coordinate with other organizations and government agencies.
Technology helps, but attitude is essentialAs for my grandmother, she still doesn’t have a cell phone. When my friend visited her after the storm, she was busy sweeping debris off the porch. She politely declined the sandwich he offered her and wondered what all the fuss was about. Grandma might not be technically savvy, but when it comes to handling a disaster, I think she’s probably still in better shape than a lot of us.
5 Disaster Tech Prep Tips:
- Get the whole family up to speed on texting
- Make powering up a part of your plan
- Gather useful page links and mobile apps now
- Practice accessing backup plans and information
- DON'T go all tech, food, water and basic supplies COME FIRST
Reference: AT&T Insider