Include electronics in disaster planning, too
Sometimes it’s only after a disaster hits that you realize the power of having an emergency plan—or, if you do have a plan, just how different reality is from theory.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the string of earthquakes from India to Mexico to Chile in the last few months, the Boston bombings, and April’s large power outage in East Van, it’s natural to think about the social capacity for stability following these mass emergencies. Sure, lots of people have a basic kit with water, granola bars, and quarters (thanks, Mom!), but in our heavily tech-dependent world, she who holds a wind-up battery charger might inherit the earth.
Well, at the very least, she could smooth the sharper edges off any chaos that ensues. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Daniel Stevens, director of emergency management for the City of Vancouver, explained that there are a number of ways households and businesses can add technology provisions to emergency planning.
Having a system in place to deal with a lack of communication or interrupted communication is “probably one of the biggest pieces that would help in a disaster”, Stevens stated.
“As soon as we have a large power outage, like what happened on the East Coast [with Hurricane Sandy], or when cellphones are overloaded, like during a riot or even during large special events—during the Celebration of Lights, our cellphone systems get pretty jammed up—we lose those linkages, and that affects people on both sides,” Stevens said. “Data is quite a good option. Cellphones or telephone lines get jammed, but you can still send text messages usually. It might be a bit slower, but you can still update your Facebook page.…Relying on data—it’s not a solution, but they’re good backups.”
A communications plan will also help businesses continue to operate.
“In Boston [after the bombings], we saw a city lockdown and people were asked not to leave their homes, but many people can work from their homes if they have the right tools in place,” Stevens said. If establishing a VPN connection to your office is too risky or costly, having work email and additional programs available in cloud-hosted or webmail formats could be enough to keep larger companies and small businesses functional.
Offsite backups, be they for personal or corporate use, could also prove vital to recovering and restoring damaged files. While some people prefer cloud storage to things like onsite hard drives, Stevens pointed out these solutions carry a price.
“They come with their own security challenges, so that’s weighed with the business continuity versus the security of not having your data on your servers behind your own firewall,” Stevens said.
Of course, modern technology runs on electricity, so for businesses and large homes, backup generators can keep functionality in place until power is restored. Battery backups and power packs are crucial to the stability of technology at home. But the key is acting before it’s too late.
“Test things,” Stevens said. “All the businesses that have generators, they have to run them regularly and cut over to generator power once a month or every two weeks to run on that system to make sure it’s up and running. At home, make sure you have some extra batteries in your emergency kit and you’ve got the converter so you can use your disposable batteries to run your cellphone, or adapters so you can provide charges to your other devices.”
Solar-powered chargers and adapters are also effective and are more environmentally friendly options. And while it might seem too expensive to create systems that might never be put into action, it’s hard to fathom living without power for very long. For businesses, it’s not about daily comforts or survival, but about simple cost management.
“The general theory is that it’s four to 10 times more expensive to recover from a large emergency event than it is to actually put a redundancy in place,” Stevens said. “That redundancy can be as simple as a way to work from home, but put some redundancies in place.”
In your personal life, those redundancies might mean storing physical copies of vital documents like insurance and homeownership papers offsite, along with printouts of important phone numbers and addresses that are only kept on your smartphone.
There are also increasingly sophisticated tools becoming available to prolong or supplement the battery life of your devices and technology—not just for hours but for days. These options, in tandem with the aforementioned measures, could help minimize the tech impact of an emergency—even if only the basics are implemented and practised.
If your business needs help with disaster planning, the city is working with the nonprofit Emergency Preparedness for Industry and Commerce Council to provide support. The city offers workshops to the public as well; information can be found on the City of Vancouver’s website. At the very least, get talking about what you’ll do without power.
“Even tabletop exercises, talking through the plans—that’s a really great way just to realize there are a lot of assumptions one may have,” Stevens said. “The more you can ingrain the processes into people, the easier it will become at the time.”
Here’s hoping we never have to put this stuff into practice.