An Action Plan for an Extended Communications Failure

Communication Plan

Physical & Virtual

Meeting Location

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ComPlan: Meeting Location

The first thing, one that you can and should do right away, is to set up a meeting location for your immediate family. Those living at the same location. I know this does not sound communications related, but it is, read on...

Actually you need several. One is just outside the building. Someplace where, if the building must be evacuated, you will all meet. You will know everyone is out, because they will all go to the same place. If someone is missing, you know that they are not just standing someplace else and you can take appropriate action to locate them.

The second location should be someplace somewhat distant from the building. This is where you would go if you were physically restrained from going to the building. Perhaps a toxic fume leak while you are at work. You can't go home, but you can probably get to the second location. Perhaps, if it is daytime, you will all meet at the kids grade school. Each case is different. You will have to think about it, but don't think too long. You can always change them. Do make up you mind quickly and let everyone know. This is important. Do it..Now...

After you have two temporary locations picked, you can refine the process. Here are some suggestions.

Physical Location:

Two or more locations One near, one at the edge of the neighborhood.

Protocol for which one to use

Decide which one to use when. It is obvious that if you need to evacuate the building, then you won't go to the kids school. Think about the probability’s that are unique to your situation and it will probably become obvious.

Message Drop

Consider a message drop. I know, it is a bit spookie to think about message drop points. Kinda like kids playing spy. But consider the following. Suppose you spouse gets to the school, picks up the kid but for some reason needs to leave and go someplace else. Could be a million reasons why. Sick kid, unsafe at the school, needs some urgent supplies....whatever. They just are not there. So what do you do? Wait? Run around and look for them? Now the message drop seems a bit more interesting, right? Actually it does not need to be what you think of as a message drop. But first a pretty long digression into LOGOS. No not the computer program, Logos like copy-write logos.

Logos, and why you might want to create one.

Story-time: A long time ago in a universe far away, (well it really seems like that sometimes), I started work in a research lab. Each engineer had the usual desk with a drawing board and such. Each also had a workspace in the lab. As I was being shown my lab space, I noticed cryptic signs above each area. Three dots in a triangle. A squiggley line and such. I was told that I had to come up with something like that and all my equipment would need to be marked accordingly.

When it was my turn to clean up the common work are, where we did group projects, I would put all the stuff with 3 dots in the 3 dot pile, squigglies in the squigglie pile. Sooner or later the 3 dots guy would show up and gather his belongings. It worked really really well. No more “ANYBODY MISSING A MICROMETER?”. Gee those guys were smart.

Mine is two offset vertical lines. A refined version looks like this. It began as two smacks with a cold chisel on tools, two magic marker swipes on things like slide rules (remember them??) or sometimes two pieces of tape on a component or prototype. This has worked well for me for over 50 years now. I will get into it more under the category of storage later. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

So what does this have to do with Message drops? Well when the spouse has to leave, I know that three small logos will appear on the back of one of the signs near the school. They might be magic marker, or scratches, pencil marks, whatever. It will represent the spouse, the kid and if they are going to a relatives place, or one of the other places for which we have created logos, that will be there too.

Actually this is a trick that everyone from hobos to spy’s use. They use it because it works. Or the logos may be the kids and a special mark that means there is a written message in a pre-defined location. That way I don't need to actually go look for the container to see if there is something in it. Crafty those spy's.


Sometimes it is quicker to use a cell phone or other electronic means to communicate. For example, if you were in Boston on that very specific Boston Marathon day, it would probably be worth a try to use the cell phone. But as we now know, the system was not available. This is not uncommon as during a disaster several things happen to the cell system.

First, everyone tries to use it at the same time. The system, which is designed to have a certain load capacity, just crashes from the overload. Next, because so many of our essential services like fire, police ambulance are now routed through the cell system, they are given priority. Actually we really don't know what happened to the cell service. Here is an interesting (to me anyway) article I snipped off one of the news services. Unfortunately I did not plan to use it so I don't have any supporting information about the authors (or copy-write either..oops).

Cell Phones Unreliable:

One of the problems is that cell companies, unlike power companies, are not required to tell the public where their networks are down, or how many customers are affected.

Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School, says assumptions that competition would force the carriers to provide reliable service are wrong.

"We assumed that cable would compete with phone, phone would compete with wireless, and that therefore we didn't need to have this whole super structure of regulation," she explains. "It turns out that we were wrong."

These problems are growing as more and more people drop their land-line phone service. Currently, over a third of households rely solely on cell phones.

Crystal Davis works in crisis communications for Sprint Nextel, the only major carrier that agreed to be interviewed about Sandy. She says a battery typically provides about 4 to 6 hours of additional power to a cell site.

"In terms of a permanent generator, that can give you an extra day or two," she says.

The problem is, in some places after Sandy the power was out for weeks.

Jamie Barnett, the former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, says backup power aside, there's a bigger issue here. As many calls move from copper wires onto the internet, Barnett says, the FCC's role is question.

"The carriers have questioned whether or not the FCC has authority over broadband, basically Internet-based communications," he says. "Well, that's the way all communications are moving."

Barnett says most calls these days — landline and cellular — will be processed through the Internet at some point. So he thinks limiting the FCC's authority over broadband would be a big deal, and could mean a lot more of "can you hear me now?"

Interesting clips. Keep that thought, the one about things moving to the internet. Perhaps it needs repeating so here it is.

“...most calls these days — landline and cellular — will be processed through the Internet. ..“

We will talk about the internet later.

I find it interesting that after a disaster, it is frequently possible to place a call to a destination outside the affected area than to a destination within the affected area. That is why virtual meeting places are so useful.

The most useful would be one or two reliable contacts outside of your local area. A reliable friend or family member that has a landline phone is good. Later when we discuss the various Communication Conditions (ComCon) you will be reminded to contact this person(s) when you first sense that problems are in the future. Make sure they are still available and are in tune with the situation. Just select someone that is both reliable and available. It does no good to have a contacts home phone number if they are not there when you need them.

Text messaging also works when voice does not. Text messages travel via a different method within the cell system. So if the system is functional, but either overloaded or restricted, text messages may still go through.

There is a voice version of the text message that is worth exploring if you have a smart phone. I use an app called Voxer, although there are many out there. Just be sure your group all use the same one and that they enable it when things look like they are going bad. Voxer works sort of like a walkie-talkie. You press a button, talk and the message is sent to all in you talk group.

The good thing here is that it is treated as data, not voice. So the message can be broken up, stopped in a que and then rebuilt at the receiving end. It is not instant. But neither is Texting. Voxer is cross platform. Works well on android and Apple products. And the group can be spread out anywhere in the world. I suggest you give it a try.

No matter what technology you adopt, the intent is to have a place out there “in the cloud” where messages can be sent and retrieved. E-mail, Texting and more are all options. Some work better for a particular group than others. Whichever you choose, be sure everyone can use it. Some folks just can't seem to get the hang of some systems while other systems seem easier.

Of course there is radio.

Gloria and I always (well almost always) carry small low powered HT's. As you will see when we discuss range, these will probably work well up to a mile and a half to two miles depending on conditions. We have a specific frequency for direct use and our own repeater system if needed. More on that later. However if you are within range, radio is an excellent option. And if part of the group are not ham's we will discuss other radio options later.

NEXT: Who do you communicate with?

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