Monday, February 09, 2009

Emergency preparedness doesn't just mean disaster-proofing

The recent ice storm in Kentucky left hundreds of thousands without power or telephone service, as nearly everyone reading the news is probably aware by now.  It also took out cell phone towers and wireless communication systems used by public safety agencies, by toppling their towers, taking out their power supplies, or taking down the landlines that connect the towers with the control points.  Several western counties had no effective communication within or without the county for several days.  This despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars to improve emergency communications across Kentucky, as reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The problem is that we are taking the wrong approach to disaster preparedness.  Much of that money was spent on upgrading public safety communication systems to newer (often digital) technologies.  These technologies do not make those systems more disaster-resistant themselves, and in fact can make them less robust because they are often locked to use gear by a specific vendor, which means you can't grab some other brand of radio and just retune it to the right frequency.  More importantly, a fancy digital trunked radio doesn't come with a superstrength antenna that can't be blown down by wind or pulled down by ice, and it's just a pretty shiny box if it doesn't have power.

The Herald-Leader article notes that the state did make satellite phones available to its regional emergency managers, but those phones are expensive to buy and to operate, and are therefore not available in a dense enough distribution to be helpful in a disaster (like an ice storm) that makes travel difficult.  At least this is evidence of the recognition that having backup communications is important, but obviously enough wasn't done, both in material distribution and in training.

The problem, however, seems to be that there is no recognition that the best way to deal with disasters like ice storms, tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes is not to build you primary infrastructure to resist destruction.  That's foolish.  No comm antenna is going to survive a direct strike by a Force 5 tornado; that mast is going to be either prezteled into uselessness, or else it'll be blown into the next county.  Either way, you won't be using it for communications.  Same deal if your mast is snapped in two by ice, or falls over because of an earthquake.  The way you prepare for disasters like this is to have "ready-reserve" equipment in bunkers that you can pull out and set up when the time comes.  And more importantly, people need to know where this equipment is and how to use it.

And because you want a lot of these bunkers (which by rights should also be stocked with food, water, medical supplies, blankets, fuel, and other such emergency-type things), the equipment should be cheap.  None of these insanely expensive fancy digital radios that only work with one another and cost a bundle.  What you want is a portable antenna mast with a simple antenna that connects to a VHF or UHF analog FM radio preloaded with designated emergency frequencies, and a nice book that explains how to set it up and some information on the designated emergency communication procedures to be used.  In many areas, especially those with rugged terrain or low population densities where VHF line-of-sight communications may not be adequate, an HF radio would be a good addition.  Even so, the portable tower is the most expensive part of this; you'd probably spend about $3000 per site for a basic configuration.

You simply cannot build your infrastructure up so that you won't have a loss-of-communication disaster; even if you had satellite phones at every location, there's the chance that the phones, or even the satellite itself, will fail.  The key here is in providing recovery resources, and in training people in how to use those resources to effect a recovery.  Too many counties in Kentucky had to make it up as they went, and that delayed relief efforts.

Personally, I'm hoping that the Kentucky experience leads to emergency management officials making more of an effort to reach out to amateur radio groups in their areas, and at the same time leads to amateur radio groups making a more concerted effort to organize themselves for preparedness and to communicate with emergency management officials what their capabilities are and how to call upon them.  It seems that both sides have been letting it slide a lot in recent years.

(Updated 2/13 to add link to Iridium satellite collision event.)