4 T’s of Emergency Communications Planning
Four elements of communications need to be considered when you are developing your emergency communications plan. The 4 T’s of Communications can be the difference between getting the message out when it matters most, or being in a black hole with no way to communicate with friends or loved ones. Be sure to account for the 4 T’s when you decide how you plan to communicate with your family in an emergency.
Type of Disaster (or Type of Disaster Impacts)
The impacts on communications infrastructure varies based on the type of disaster you are faced with. Every type and occurrence of disaster has a different set of impacts. Although there are a number of potential impacts which can hinder communications, there are three major ones to look out for as you develop your emergency communications plan.
- Geographical Size
- Physical Damage to Infrastructure
- Power Availability
Each one of these substantial impacts is a trigger point. The greater they are, the more substantial your communications challenges will be.
As your impact area gets bigger, the harder it will be to reach outside of the impact zone. For example, to get the high-speed data and voice on your cell phone we are familiar with in today’s age, you typically have to be within a few miles of a cellular tower. As the geographical impact area increases beyond this range, the more difficult it becomes for your cellular device to obtain a signal. In some cases, you may lose it all together. Once your signal is completely gone, you will have to divert to a secondary communication means that can bridge this distance gap. In this situation, you may be able to temporarily move outside the impact area to make your emergency contacts, but again as the impact area grows, this also becomes unfeasible.
Physical Damage to Communications Infrastructure
When antennas, antenna towers, and internet backbones that support your existing communications infrastructure get damaged, you exponentiate the amount of time that it will take to bring it back to normal. As your infrastructure goes down due to damage, regardless of the type (cellular, two way radio over repeaters, etc.), it instantly causes an increase in congestion on the surrounding systems that are still online. The communications volume increases not only because you are now in a disaster and everyone is trying to communicate, but also because the communications towers that are still online are now handling additional traffic from the downed towers as well.
Let’s quickly look at a physical example. You can probably hold 2-3 tennis balls in one hand comfortably (if you can hold 4, no need to brag, but good for you). So place 2-3 tennis balls (or whatever you can hold) in each hand. Now, one of your hands gets “damaged” and now you can no longer use it. So hand over all the tennis balls in that hand to the other “undamaged” hand. What happens? Tennis balls will fall. So why does this occur? Because you’re working hand has a certain capacity and you are now trying to push it beyond that capacity. Once its capacity is maxed out, the remaining balls fall. This is the exact same thing that happens with communications infrastructure. The towers that are still online are pushed beyond their capacity so some communications drop out.
When the power infrastructure is damaged, some systems in the impact area that allow you to communicate via your normal methods will go down immediately, or more commonly, they are instantly put on a countdown clock. Why the clock? Because they are now on generator power or a battery. Each of these power sources must be replenished to keep the system online. If this fuel source is not maintained or refilled, the system goes offline. The longer the time period without power, the greater the risk of the back-up power source failing. In addition, the larger the area where the power infrastructure is impacted the longer it will take to turn it back on.
As you can see, each one of these trigger points, can substantially increase the time that the standard communications systems will be down therefore increasing the amount of time you will have to utilize your emergency communications methods.
How long are you going to have to utilize your emergency communications methods for the disaster? Will it be 2 hours? Will it be 2 days? Will it be 2 weeks or 2 months? The longer the amount of time you are without your normal communications means, the more likely you will have to move to your alternate communications methods in your emergency communications plan. If you have an outage that will be limited to a few hours, you may not even worry about alternate means of communications. Or the adaptations to bridge the communications issues will be relatively simple in nature (i.e. sending an email or text instead of a phone call). As these outage times increase (due to system damage or other impacts as described above) the means of communications adaptations become more limited and more complex. This is why training on your communication methods are important for yourself and your family (we will discuss in more detail below).
Type of Communications
Just as you are told to diversify investment portfolios and “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”; the same is true with the types of communications systems you plan to use as part of your emergency communications plan. You do not want to depend on one type of communications technology entirely for your emergency communications; you should diversify. For example, instead of depending solely on cell phones, add in two-way radios into the mix, or a satellite communicator device such as the Garmin InReach Mini or InReach Explorer Plus. There are endless options available, especially if you are an amateur radio operator (we will talk more about types of communications methods and what is available in futures articles).
Use What You Have Available, Start with What You Use the Most
Develop your diversified communications plan based on the communications systems you have available to you. Once you know your available communications methods, prioritize them starting by the ones you and your family use the most. Why start with what you use the most? Because you train on those methods the most often and you are the most proficient in them. This allows you to communicate faster when the second’s count. For the majority of people, this will start with the cellphone including:
- cellular voice calls
- cellular data
- SMS messaging
These methods are a core starting point (assuming you use cellphones quite often) as they inherently touch each continuity option available via the cellular technology. From there, focus on the back-up methods you have available and use the most. For example, if you have Family Radio Service (FRS) Radios that you use with your friends and family when you go out camping or hunting, this may be your runner up. They are more for short range communications, but your family is more proficient with them due to your use during activities and outings.
Social Media is an Option, but it’s Not Private!
Another example expanding what we discussed above, is social media. If you have a data connection to the internet, social media allows you to communicate effectively with family and friends. The information also remains posted even if you go offline, which is helpful when communications systems are intermittent. However, you must consider the impacts on your personal security (PERSEC) if you use this as a communication means. Social media is not private!
But I Can Limit Who Sees My Posts
Some social media systems such as Facebook allow you to “limit” who sees your information, but you must stay on top of your security settings for your account and also for each post. The wrong flick of the thumb when posting information, and it can be placed in the public view. Once information is in the open, it can and will be cached (saved) by others. This information is no longer secure and in an emergency situation can open you up for vulnerabilities.
The “Friends of Friends” settings in a survival situation should also be considered unsecure. Can you vouch for or trust everyone your friends know? Furthermore, do you trust your family’s livelihood to the convictions of all the friends of the friends? For example, you tell your family via a social media post that you are leaving your home and headed out of town to evacuate as you have no power and hot weather. Your social media settings are set to friend of friends or worse off, public. You have now shared with a plethora of people that your home is vacant. Not to mention, many of them who also probably don’t have power, and may be in a worse situation that you.
A 2011 survey by Credit Sesame found that “78% of burglars used Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to target potential properties”. And now your home is a known, unguarded target, for others who need or want your stuff.
I’ll Just “Tweet” It
As for Twitter, we do not recommend as an emergency communications method. Consider it public, “nuff” said.
Overall, we recommend you stay away from social media if possible for emergency communications due to the personal security risk.
So What Can I Use?
Consider an email alert group using Yahoo Groups, Google Groups or other means instead. They are a little “old school” and take a little more time to set -up, but allow you a free closed group to only members you vet for entry.
They also tend to be more hands off as they send you an email for a new post, so you don’t have to “log-in” to get the latest notifications. The information is still stored online so you can see all the posts when you do access via the web, but you aren’t required to do so. As you can read the email strings in your inbox instead. Pictures and images can be included in posts as well.
Generations and Age
The age of the people you are communicating with may play a great role of determining your communications methods you use. If you are predominately communicating with the “older and wiser” generations, you many consider limiting your cellular capabilities or completely alleviate social media all together. If you plan to still include these items, you may need to provide additional training on the technology.
As for younger generations, it can be the opposite. For the youngsters, you will most likely need to stress the importance of limiting social media communications or restricting them all together due to the vulnerabilities they bring to the family. Many children and young adults from grade school to college, do not understand the security vulnerabilities and risks associated with social media today.
Once you have identified the types of communications you plan to use, the most important factor is practicing the use of those methods and executing your emergency communications plan.
Keep a Regular Testing Schedule
Test your primary communications methods weekly at the least. Remember, for most, this is sending a text, email, and phone call. Test your secondary communications systems monthly. This may be sending an email to your emergency communications Yahoo Group or testing the range of your two way radios. Remember to use the same methods and procedures you plan to use during times of emergency. “You can only fight the way you practice” (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy)
Make it Fun!
If you have children, they can be a great asset in your communications testing and help you out. Make it fun for them to help. Turn your range testing of your two-way radios into a game. As you test your range, turn it into a game of “I Spy” looking for long range items such as airplanes, birds, cars, or even clouds of a particular shape. Let them take it to their friends out when they go over to play. Use this as your method of communicating with them while they are there in place of a cell phone. Let them use the radios with their friends during a sleep over or a camping trip so they become more proficient in the use of the equipment.
Remember, you aren’t the only one communicating. Usually you want information communicated in return. Train the people you plan to communicate with. Get them engaged in the testing process.
Develop How-To Guides or Checklists
For secondary communications methods that aren’t used as often, a how-to guide, or checklist may be a helpful tool when you need it the most. You may know how to email your family alert group but does your spouse? During times of stress, skills that are practiced less often become harder to remember, or steps get forgotten. Checklists take a little extra time, but can be an invaluable tool to ensure communications are still able to be sent during times of disaster.
Integrate with the 4 T’s
As you develop your emergency communications plan, considering the types of impacts from a disaster, down time, types of communications methods available to you, and the training you provide to those in your team, will greatly enhance your ability to communicate in disaster.
In many cases, these four elements can be the difference in getting the message out and not being able to communicate when it matters the most. To receive our upcoming articles on communications directly to your email, sign up for our newsletter here. Or like us on Facebook or Twitter.