In light of the unimaginable crisis the Japanese people are facing a question that begs to be asked is “what would we do in a similar situation and what resources are there available to help us get through?” I think there are three parts to being prepared: the role of social media, what types of technology is available to help get organized and what online resources are available.
Bruno Marsala and I got together to help you make your own disaster plan.
How can Social Media help in a Disaster?
It happened first during the terrible earthquake in Haiti and now it’s maturing in this Japanese disaster as the power of social media is helping people find each other and provide up to the second news of what’s going on.
Social media offers quick, up to the minute information, photos, opinions, observations and news and has turned into a valuable source of information for many. There are a wide variety of ways social media can be of help in a disaster, although the obvious caveat is that power needs to be available for social media feeds coming out of an area to be effective. Having said that, social media is currently providing a very valuable service in Japan as people try to find loved ones.
I first read a story written by Doug Lacombe, president of Communicatto, when he wrote about how the use of social media had actually helped save the life of a Canadian trapped in rubble in Haiti. Lacombe is a Canadian social media expert who speaks widely on the various applications of social media. His story relates how Facebook was used to help find a and rescue a Canadian trapped in the rubble of his hotel from 3000 km away.
Matt Wilson of Ragan.com, wrote a great piece on how relief groups are turning to social media in Japan. He talks about the various ways social media is helping people direct their aid dollars toward helping out in Japan and how social media is being used to spread accurate information.
Mainstream news agencies are getting onboard with social media in a big way. For example The Washington Post has created a Twitter list of people who are tweeting from the quake area and they’ve aggregated it into a list that you can subscribe to keep up with all the latest information from the area. Similarly, CNN’s correspondents are tweeting from the ground in Japan and you can follow all their thoughts and observations.
The Crisis Commons volunteer community has organized to gather information from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to create a map pinpointing crisis areas around Japan. The map utilizes information from RSS feeds, YouTube video, Twitter, Flickr and Ushahidi to offer up to the second information on what’s going on. Most of us are familiar with Flickr, YouTube and Twitter, but Ushahidi is a new concept. It’s an open source tool to enable crowd sourcing of information using multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web.
David Micallef, of socialmediatoday.com, recently wrote a piece on the role of social media in disaster relief. It’s essentially a short primer for organizations to plan for or respond to a disaster and is relevant anywhere.
The point is, social media has enabled information to be gathered and disseminated from multiple sources with the aim to help out in times of crisis like the Japanese are facing. First, with the earthquake in Haiti, then with the recent earthquake in New Zealand and now, with Japan, social media is fast becoming THE source of information from those on the ground. If some disaster were to happen in Canada, social media would undoubtedly perform a valuable role and will aid in getting help.
What web services are available to help me get organized?
Simply put, there are more available sources on the Internet than anyone could imagine. The sites following are only a small sampling of all the online resources available for you to make your own disaster plan.
The Government of Canada’s “Is Your Family Prepared?” website is a great place to start for information on what you personally can do to prepare your family for a disaster of any type.
Natural Resources Canada also has an excellent website for gathering information on how to prepare for and what to do in the event of a disaster.
The Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (CCEP) has a website offering you the tools and templates for you to develop your own family emergency plan. They offer a downloadable Emergency Preparedness Guide that can help you to set your own plan up.
Disaster Management, offers information on types of disasters, how to prepare for them and how to respond to them. This site is a good place to gather information to help prepare in the event of a disaster and they present it in personal terms.
And then there’s FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the US Department of Homeland Security. Their website offers user information on preparing for disasters, protecting your family in an emergency, and more. While everything on their website is directed toward US citizens, and they’re famous for dropping the ball during Katrina, there are nonetheless very good resource materials to help anyone in the event of a disaster.
Google’s people finder is an example of how the online world provides a fantastic service in the event of a disaster.
So early preparation would appear to be the best way for an individual or a country to prepare for the worst.
While a lot of focus on disaster recovery is available for the business community in order to mitigate loss in the event of a disaster, huge natural disasters like that in Japan, Katrina, or Haiti move way past simply trying to figure out how to preserve a business. Business is one thing, human life, something altogether different and it’s times like these that make one wonder what the best way to prepare for a disaster might be.
What Technology is available to help when disaster strikes?
From something as simple as a wind-up lantern or a wind-up radio, there is a ton of technology available to us as we try to decide what to do to prepare for a disaster.
Gas-powered portable generator: Electricity has been cut to hundreds of thousands in Japan, including businesses and hospitals. Rolling power outages have been put in place to help cope with the massive power disruption and requirements. Power is essential for many things including technology that can help when disaster strikes. A portable gas-powered generator is highly reccomended. For around $150 you can purchase one that offers 1200 watts of AC power and is about the size of a toaster oven. 1200 watts equivalent of enough power to run twelve 100-watt light bulbs at once. Considering most communication devices such as a cell phone, laptop, am/fm/weather radio, PBLs (Personal Beacon Locator) do not draw as much power (to charge), it’s a sure bet to help maintain your devices are powered up and on standby when you need it most. Having an approved 10L gas can (full) along with a outdoor 50ft extension 3-way receptacle extension cord is a good idea to have right beside your generator. Due to carbon monoxide emissions, a generator should be kept outside at all times when running. It’s a good idea to start it once in a while (when in storage) and add a fuel stabilizer to keep fuel supply clean and ensure it’s ready when you need it. Some alternatives for power generation would be solar panel chargers or an DC inverter that allows you to run devices off your car battery. Let’s not forget a good stash of batteries for flashlights and handheld radios. A non-tech side note: For keeping food from perishing and lasting longer during power outages, a 12-volt thermoelectric AC/DC cooler by Canadian company – Koolatron, is a great device. It draws the equivalent power of a 60-watt lightbulb that can easily run off a car battery or your portable generator for quite some time.
One and two-way radio devices: Events such as tornadoes, floods, or major winter storms can knock out various communication lines (phone, internet, cable) very quickly. Having a basic radio on hand to stay on top of disaster & recovery efforts, along with official warnings can be a lifesaver too. Being an avid boater, we rely heavily on radio communication when out in the Great Lakes as part of our safety ensemble. It’s a great backup when Internet or cellular signals might be down due to power or cell tower damage. Two-way radios are also a great way to stay connected within a short distance. I prefer the ones with a longer range (urban areas offer about 1.5 kms) and waterproof feature to ensure functionality. As noted earlier, having the hand-cranking feature along with a built-in LED light on your radio device is a good idea.
Non-powered telephone: Your landline telephone network does not need electricity to run. Therefore, if you have a good old-fashioned, non-powered telephone -and the telephone lines are working- you can reach out for help. We bought one for about $3 at a garage sale last year and it’s safely stored with the flashlights and candles. Most of the call display style phones in our homes today require power and will be rendered useless if there is no power – unless you have a generator or other alternative power source of course.
PLB’s (Personal Locator Beacons): These devices are primarily used by those engaged in outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, camping. However for those in remote areas where cellular or landline communication is not available, this can be a lifesaver when disaster strikes. It works by sending a radio-based distress signal when activated by the victim manually. The signal is picked up by Cospas-Sarsat satellites which then is used by rescue teams who work to triangulate or ‘pinpoint’ the location on land or sea. As we all know from movies and television, using visual aids such as smoke, flares, or light reflection helps the rescue teams when approaching. Several of the newer personal locator beacons now send out exact GPS based co-ordinates which speed up the effort substantially. Most high-end sport outfitters sell PLB’s and it’s recommended you register your device with the Canadian Beacon Registry and that it is coded for use in Canada.
Smart phones and rescue apps: Today’s smart phones offer many life-saving features like GPS, video & sound capture along with automated text delivery, which help in times of emergency – provided cellular and Internet connectivity are functioning. Applications like BuddyGuard VIP send out signals when an alarm is triggered to designated contacts via phone, text message and email. These notifications include audio and video files captured by BuddyGuard along with a link to a map showing the last recorded location. The information is stored on a secure server that retains the information should your phone get lost, damaged or die. You need to create an account and setup your list of designated contacts but it has several features which are all free like fall and crash detection that uses the built-in accelerometer readings to trigger emergency notifications (as long as the app is running of course). There is an optional annual fee-based coverage that works in alliance with GEOS’s International Emergency Response Coordination Center for a more immediate search and rescue response. This application is available for the iPhone and the developers are soon releasing a BlackBerry and Android version as well, however the Emergency SMS feature is available for any SMS capable phone.
What do you think?
Do you think that preparing for a disaster is a waste of money, or is it well worth what it might cost.
Have the events in Japan illustrated to you that a disaster doesn’t happen just in third world countries with a poor infrastructure – that one of the most developed and successful nations on earth can be brought to it’s knees too.
Do you think it can happen in Canada?
What websites do you use to gather information for your own disaster plan?
Thanks to Doug Lacombe and Bruno Marsala for their contributions.