Tag: emergency alert

No phone service!

“. . .but it’s fully charged!”

Nearly 20 years ago, Joe and I worked on a marketing campaign for one of the largest telephone companies in the country. Called “Silence can be deadly,” the campaign was aimed at selling more dependable phone service.

In the middle of the campaign the Loma Prieta quake hit in San Francisco. No phone service! Only static on the car radio! Traffic lights missing in action! Worse, because it took the World Series right off the air, the whole country was suddenly struck by the shock of no communications! (This dramatic interruption helped make the campaign a huge financial success.)

That was then. This is now, when we are all carrying cellphones. Still, communications can be interrupted by disasters. Be ready!

For example, just last month, you’d have seen this news coming out of Texas.

“.. . all major cell carriers are experiencing interruptions.” And this meant . . .

“Can you hear me?”  Hundreds of thousands of cell phones were silenced when power was cut to cell tower sites. Even if your cellphone is fully charged, when cell towers don’t function, either because they have lost power or are turned off, that means no calls, no texts and no access to the internet news.

No emergency alerts. When California shut off power deliberately in the summer of 2019, it wasn’t anticipated that without TV, radio or cell service, governmental emergency alert notices do not come through. Without power, the only way you’ll get notified of impending disaster is via physical alarms like sirens, airhorns, car-powered loudspeakers, etc. (Does your preparedness team need any of these devices?)

No 911 service. These days, 96% of people carry cellphones, so that’s where 80% of 911 calls come from. If your cell phone isn’t working, you can’t get through to 911!

It feels as though this list is just a start for the inconvenience and the danger that awaits in a widespread and/or lengthy power outage that includes telephone companies.

What is the answer when you have no phone service?

So far, there seems to be no one perfect answer. If your power goes out because of a disaster or a policy decision, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Adjust your attitude. Just expect to have no instant communication with the outside world – with your family, your work, or your health care providers. It’s not impossible – our grandparents lived this way! As for attitude, one of our Emergency Plan Guide readers reports that she invited neighbors for dinner every night of a recent power outage! Together, by the light of solar garden lamps, they put together meals (cooking with charcoal grills) and enjoyed each other’s company.
  2. “Read you loud and clear.” If you have family or neighbors within a local neighborhood, you may be able to use inexpensive battery-operated walkie-talkies to touch bases, ask for assistance – or invite people to dinner. Longer-rage satellite radios could reach to just about anywhere! (We just added info about satellite radios to our review page.)
  3. Get on the air with HAM radios. Amateur radio operators – HAM radio operators – have higher-powered equipment that will likely be able to get news from other HAM operators and receive emergency communications from official agencies, too. They may be able to send messages from your neighborhood, as well. A good HAM set-up should have battery-back-up — check with your local HAM team members!.

What about getting to the internet via my cellphone?

It’s possible that you can reach the internet through your cellphone or VOIP phone even if your local phone service isn’t functioning. Once there, you could reach emergency contacts using internet phone systems (Ex.: Vonage, GotoConnect) or apps (Ex.: Google Voice, WhatsApp).

This scenario makes a lot of assumptions. First and foremost, you’ll need ready-to-employ back-up power for your own home or office wi-fi set-up (modem, router). It also assumes your internet provider (operating over fiber or in the cloud) is able to continue operations.

Action item: check with your own internet provider to see just what will happen to your service in a power outage! Find out if they have recommendations to keep communications open.

What about my hard-wired landline?

Honestly, I don’t have a solid recommendation here. Many phone companies seem to be discontinuing wired phone service – I know we can’t use our cheap hard–wired phone any longer. Still, some people’s wired phones do seem to have continued to work even during the outages. If you have a hard-wired phone, you may want to hang on to it. (Check first to see if it is actually working!)

Don’t confuse “wired phone” with “portable phone.” Your portable phone’s base may be connected by hardwire, but – surprise! – that system itself needs electricity to operate.

Once again, do you have suggestions? Stories about power outages that might be useful to other Emergency Plan Guide readers? Please share! This is a complicated issue, with many possible variations. And they keep changing. We’d like to hear from you with your latest discoveries!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. And while I’m writing from here in California, where we have experienced planned and deliberate Public Safety Power Shut-offs, please remember that historically, the leading cause of power outages in the U.S. is hurricanes! So if you’re not in wildfire country, don’t shrug this info off as something you won’t need to know!

Evacuation Plan Breakdown

Wildfire approaching. What's our evacuation plan?
Heading in our direction . . .?!

Sometimes you think you’re pretty well up to speed on preparedness – and then a real emergency hits. You get the chance to see how your plan holds up. Today, I want to tell you about the recent breakdown of our evacuation plan – and what we’ve done about it since.

(Oh, I know the saying that “No plan withstands first contact with the enemy.”  Source? Graf Helmuth von Moltke, Prussian field marshal during Franco-Prussian war of 1870, known as Moltke the Elder – just in case you wanted to know. I always want to know these things.)

But back to the story of our evacuation plan breakdown. It happened only two months ago.

Not only did our plan break down, but we discovered we hardly had a plan at all!

It’s taken us a while to dig out from under, but now’s the time to share just what we discovered and what we had to do as a result.

My goal is to encourage you to spend some time looking at your own emergency response plans to see if you can spot some holes.

If your plans are as bad as ours were, you’ll want to take remedial action!

What happened that day. . .

You’ll recall earlier Advisories about our “near miss” with a wildfire in the final weeks of October. It was during one of Southern California’s well-known Red Flag (high wind) events. A vegetation fire started in the early morning. By afternoon it had exploded to over 5,000 acres – and it was barreling right toward our town.

Evacuation orders were issued and extended, covering zone after zone of the town. By 5 pm they had reached the apartment complex right across the street from us.

I’ve detailed a lot of what we were doing that day to alert neighbors, keep them up to date with evacuation warnings and orders, where shelters were being set up, etc. (If you didn’t read my “Diary” of that day, please do. I think you’ll find it useful to get the blow by blow.)

As it turned out, late in the afternoon the winds changed direction. We never got a mandatory evacuation order.

But by 5 pm we had learned a whole lot of why evacuation would never have worked.

In the following four weeks we learned even more. Here were the realities in our senior retirement community:

  • More than half of our neighbors received no emergency alerts. Either they hadn’t signed up, or they’d turned them off. By afternoon everyone did realize that there was a fire because of the heavy smoke in the air.
  • The 30% (or more) of our community without internet access had no idea about evacuation routes or where shelters were to be found. (The shelter location map put out by the city was excellent – but it was online.)
  • Around 40% of our neighboring households could not evacuate without assistance, i.e. help with physically getting out of the house, or help with transportation. We didn’t know who they were.
  • Neighbors with pets had no emergency supplies: crates or carriers, leashes, and ID papers that would allow the pets to accompany their owners to shelters, hotels, etc.
  • Despite multiple calls to various city offices, we got no useful answers about what official help to expect.

We are a community that has actually won awards for being so well prepared! How could so many failures have existed?

The answer is amazingly simple.

Over 10 years ago, following multiple wildfire tragedies, our neighborhood emergency response group hosted a series of meetings. Local fire department, police, utility companies, community managers, and experienced neighborhood response group members attended.

We discussed how to evacuate the community. We identified many of the same issues that are listed above. It was agreed that evacuation would be so challenging that it would have to be the very last resort. Professionals advised us that our energy would be best used helping neighbors be ready to shelter in place.

So for the past 10 years, that’s what we have done!

What we did differently after this evacuation plan breakdown.

Our “near miss” was so traumatic that Joe and I wasted no time is raising the alarm. We wrote to the mayor. We gathered more facts by surveying neighbors and the property managers via phone, zoom and email. We contacted our city’s emergency manager, who helped pull together a virtual meeting that included all the key players, just as had happened years ago.

This time, the results were different.

First, we discovered that a new evacuation plan for the city had actually been completed just before COVID hit! The shutdowns meant that where we normally would have had a community meeting to reveal the plan, it never happened.

Second, members of our group spent hours tracking down the answers to questions that still remained. The next step was to share this information.

Getting more information out to the community.

Series of flyers with Evacuation Reminders

The only way we have of reaching all our neighbors is via flyers. Accordingly, members of our neighborhood emergency response team researched, wrote, duplicated and distributed a series of flyers – in multiple languages — to all 360 homes in our community.

(Photo of actual flyers, slightly crumpled and purposefully blurred since they contain phone numbers specific to our community. See more details below.)

The flyers reminded people that they are responsible for their own evacuation . . . and urged them to take immediate steps to be more prepared.

  • Flyer #1: Get Connected! reminded people how to sign up for various emergency alert programs and suggested multiple sources for emergency news.
  • Flyer #2: Get Packed! reviewed the importance of having an already packed evacuation Go-Bag and listed what needs to be in it. (Supplies for pets, too.)
  • Flyer #3: Get Out! listed evacuation transportation options, with particular guidance for people who need assistance. Most important: make sure your needs are known before an evacuation is called! By the way, here was my original sentence that the Fire Department asked me to soften, “If you refuse to leave, First Responders will not come back for you.” (Even though it’s the truth!)
  • Flyer #4: Know where to go!  provided a map of our city showing likely shelters, complete with addresses and phone numbers. (This was particularly for neighbors who do not own cell phones.)

Our flyers were written specifically for our community, taking into consideration its cultures and languages, ages, role of property managers, and resources of our city. If you have questions, or would like to see the actual flyers, just let me know.

For the time being, we’re confident that our community’s evacuation plans have been strengthened. Now our job will be to repeat and remind neighbors of all its recommendations – without overlooking the continuing emphasis on shelter in place.

What should be your next steps?

I urge you to take another look at your family’s evacuation plan and at the same time, your community’s evacuation plan. After all, one doesn’t exist without the other. Ask a lot of questions!  “What do we do if . . .?” “Where do we go if…?” If you have questions with no good answers, become an “activist.” Get to know your city’s emergency manager!

I can assure you, you won’t forgive yourself for an evacuation plan breakdown.

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. This Advisory has touched on just a few aspects of evacuation. I hope you’ll consider getting our Mini-series book on the topic. It covers more questions and offers answers that may fit. (Click the link above, scroll down on the page until you get to Evacuate!)

Lessons from Harvey – The First Week


Flood Hurricane Harvey


How well would you have done?

“I’ve heard it a hundred times: Be prepared for emergencies!”

I’m sure you have. And I’m sure the people in Texas had heard it, too. But what we witnessed this week suggests that a whole lot of them were caught unprepared.

Let’s take a look at some of what we saw just this week. It might be useful for all our neighbors and friends, not to mention ourselves.

We have learned a lot about Houston, Texas.

So many people who had been through past storms just weren’t ready for this one. Why not?

This is turning out to be an historical event. That is, NEVER BEFORE SEEN!  Not a hundred year rain, or a 500 year rain, or a 1,000 year rain. Amounts of rain outside the insurance guidelines; amounts that required weather forecasters to tear down their charts and build new ones, live on the air!

One simple fact stands out to help explain the event. Sea surface waters near Texas rose as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average, creating some of the hottest spots of ocean surface in the world. This heat is what caused the storm to develop so rapidly into a Category 4 storm. (Read more at The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/did-climate-change-intensify-hurricane-harvey/538158/

One neighborhood after another fell victim to flooding. Why is flooding so widespread in Houston?

Again, one fact seems to stand out: “over-development.

Houston has been called “The Wild West” of development. It’s the largest U.S. city to have no zoning laws. As millions of new residents have moved in, development has been allowed in flood-prone areas. Water management seems to be built on a patchwork drainage system of bayous, city streets and a couple of 80-year-old dams. (Looking for more background? Check out this article from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/investigations/harvey-urban-planning/?utm_term=.f2848cb00326)

The city just isn’t able to handle a big storm like Harvey.

(With more and increasingly violent storms on the horizon, you should be asking yourself about your own city’s plan and preparedness.)

Then we learned a lot from individual families.

From TV footage you could see and hear the differences between people who had prepared and those who hadn’t. Here are some of the images that stick with me, and questions we could all be asking ourselves.

1-We didn’t hear from people who actually evacuated safely before the rains hit. We did hear about some people who refused to evacuate. (One man was quoted as saying, “I got food and I got my gun. That’s all I need.”) Ask yourself: “Am I prepared to evacuate if word comes down – or would I resist, delay or flat-out not go?”

2-Many people were not prepared because they weren’t expecting a disaster. (“Lived here 20 years, assumed we’d be fine.”) Even if their homes weren’t flooded, when their neighborhood was surrounded by water, these folks hadn’t set aside enough supplies to shelter in place for more than a few days. Ask yourself: “How many days’ worth of supplies do I REALLY have?” (Follow-on question: What about supplies, including flashlights and batteries, for if the power is out?)

3-We heard so many stories from people who said they’d gone to sleep and then somehow, in the night, had wakened to find water in the house. If course, you don’t leave your TV on all night for weather reports. In an emergency, though, getting important communications in a timely fashion could mean the difference between considered action and panic. Ask yourself: “How do I plan to get emergency news?” (We’ve written before about emergency and weather alert radios that could be left on all night if need be! And here’s an Advisory with alert app info. And does your community have a Reverse 911 system, that is, an automated message delivery system that could notify you via telephone about impending flooding or other emergency?)

4-We saw image after image of people climbing out of boats with just the clothes they were wearing, perhaps gripping a small plastic bag with “valuables.” And did you see how many of them were barefoot?! Ask yourself: “Do I have an evacuation bag or backpack compact enough to carry or wear onto a boat or bus or even into a helicopter rescue basket?” (And does it have shoes in it?)

5-Pets were visible in nearly every shot. I saw a boat going by that carried probably a dozen animal carriers – just pets, no people! By the same token, I’m sure we all saw the image of the dog swimming at the end of his leash. If you have a pet, ask yourself: “Does my pet have a carrier? Can I get my pet INTO the carrier? Can I handle the carrier myself while helping my other family members?”

6-People were using landlines to call 911, and cell phones to share emergency messages via Twitter and/or Facebook. Ask yourself: “Do I know how to use social media in an emergency? Who would I send a message to? What’s their number/address?”

7-In the midst of everything, I heard newscasters mentioning that people were being urged to apply for disaster relief – like, immediately! (FEMA anticipates some 450,000 people will apply.) Ask yourself: “If I had to apply for relief from an evacuation shelter, would I be able to supply the necessary information?

Here’s a brief list, taken from the DisasterAssistance.gov website, of what you need for the application:

  • Social Security Number
  • Proof of citizenship (non-citizen national or qualified alien)
  • Insurance coverage you have (type, amounts)
  • Damage you’ve sustained (photos?)
  • Household income at time of disaster
  • Contact information

You might be able to provide direct deposit details, too, if you have them.

Don’t let Harvey get by without doing something about your own preparedness.

So do you know people who STILL haven’t done any preparing for an emergency because they “can’t imagine it happening?”

If you do, and if you care about them, please forward this article while Houston is fresh in everyone’s minds.

If you know people who need even more of a push to build a simple evacuation bag, send them to EmergencyPlanGuide.org with the recommendation that they buy our guide to building a custom survival kit. (Actually spending a few dollars may be the impetus they need to take this seriously.)
Build Your Custom Survival Kit
If you need to refresh your own kit, or build MORE kits so you have one for each family member, the workplace and your cars, our workbook will help sort it all out. (It has pictures, lists, charts, product reviews and recommendations – everything you need to approach this systematically and get it done!)

⇒    Here’s the link to the Guide: http://EmergencyPlanGuide.org/custom-survival-kit/.

Let’s all of us use Houston’s story to add to our own knowledge and resolve. And let’s contribute to helping residents of Houston however we can. They are going to need help for a long time.

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. One other thing we learned about Texas is that people pitched in to help their neighbors. It was inspiring. Let’s hope that our neighbors would help us and we’d help them in the same way.