Thursday, June 20, 2013

Disaster: How Prepared Are We Really?

In the midst of the flooding going on in Alberta today, I was surprised (and not) to see tweets similar to the following:





… and this reference on the Calgary emergency response website (red highlighting is mine):


Even relying on third party services like Twitter for emergency communication can produce problems like this one below (especially poignant when towns like High River suggested that people get their updates from places like Twitter because their town website went down due to traffic overload as noted in a previously shown tweet):


As a ham radio operator and being trained in emergency communication, I have always had a worry about our communication network (including cellphones, landlines and the Internet) and its inability to serve our needs during times of emergency – the one time when we really need it.

During 9/11, our telephone network (cell and landlines) collapsed in a combination of infrastructure loss as the World Trade Center collapsed plus capacity overload as everyone reached for a phone.

More recently, during the Boston Marathon bombing, cellphone service also became disrupted as first responders, runners, bystanders, family members of runners / bystanders and everyone else hit the network.  Conspiracy people were disappointed to hear that the US government had indeed not shut down the network as some believed.

It just got overloaded.

The bottom line is that our communication and information systems are built only to serve a certain percentage of users at once and for the foreseeable future, this is the way it will remain.  Unfortunately, the cost and energy required to build networks that can withstand 100% of the users that it serves will always be prohibitive barring new discoveries in cheaper, lower-footprint technology.

Also unfortunately, when emergencies hit we will always get a lot more users on our communication and information infrastructure than the infrastructure was designed for, resulting in communication difficulties or outright failures.

This doesn’t just prevent us from being able to reach a loved one.  Such communication difficulties may also impact first responders who are relying on the same technology in certain situations as the afore mentioned tweet proves.

The bottom line is this.

Lives could be at stake as a result - the lives of you, your family and others.

And since communication is one of the primary needs during an emergency (besides critical items such as shelter, medical supplies, food and water), one has to ask one’s self:

If a widespread emergency should strike my area tomorrow, what communication mechanisms can I count on to reach out to others to make sure they are ok, to let others know that I am ok, to call for help or to offer help.

If you can’t answer that question, then perhaps you should explore your options.

Governments have and continue to work on contingency plans in the event of disaster – natural or manmade.

The onus is on us as citizens to contribute to this planning process as much as possible and to do whatever we can to minimize our exposure to concerns of personal safety.

The day may come when we reach for our phone when we really need it and nobody will be on the other end.

What will you do for yourself or your family then?

In service and servanthood,



A special word of thanks to the brave men and women who are serving the needs of the many who are affected by this storm.  Where would we be without their brave, unselfish efforts?

My comments regarding strained infrastructure today are not a criticism of the people who own the infrastructure.  They did the best they could with what they have.  My point is that we all need to step up to help them in order to assure all of our safety.

A Warning:

This is also a sobering reminder of what can be produced by Mother Nature.  Is it any wonder that certain governments are researching ways of controlling weather for the purposes of using Mother Nature as a weapon?

Addendum – June 24, 2013

As is often the case, in the event post mortem that is starting to develop we discover that the Alberta flood event didn’t come without some warnings in the past as noted here.  The government study with recommendations described in the news report was released after the last major flood event in Calgary in 2005.

Maybe we need to pay more attention to such warnings.  Unfortunately, when it comes to such things, when balancing risk versus cost, we usually accept the risk.  Sometimes we get lucky – sometimes we don’t.

I am reminded yet again of the words of my former father-in-law (now deceased), a decorated USAF colonel and war hero.  In 1991, he told me that within circles of senior military officials and advisors to the President, the greatest perceived threat to national security were terrorist groups commandeering commercial aircraft and using them against domestic targets.  What ensued 10 years later changed America and the world forever.

We acted surprised then also.

Addendum – June 25, 2013

From the “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing” department, Alberta Environment Minister McQueen indicated today that the province will not consider restricting new development on flood plains at this time.  While it is too early to decide what restrictions should be in place, it is also too early to say that they will not consider restricting it.

If such an intention is carried out, new development replacement is condemned to be carried at the expense of the insurance companies (should they decide to offer flood insurance) or the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

And a future flood disaster is a “when” and not an “if” if other risk mitigation strategies aren’t put into effect.

No comments:

Post a Comment