In view of the terrible plight involving Hurricane Sandy, I think everyone needs to read an article I posted in one of my web sites several years ago. Emergency communicators – take heed.

Sometimes Getting There Can Be Your Greatest Problem

Bob Hejl W2IK

So, you’ve joined some emergency support group, taken some training and even done a few drills. That’s great! Your equipment is ready. You’re ready. But, “Murphy” has other ideas. Whether you’re a member of ARES, RACES, SATERN, REACT, CERT or any other group, you need to do more homework than what they’ve suggested. What good is all your equipment, training and confidence if you can’t get to a deployment site? Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any group adequately cover one of the most important steps in emergency communications: Getting volunteers to their final destinations as quickly and as safely as possible. Although this is especially true during natural disasters such as winter storms, hurricanes or intense periods of rain which produce almost catastrophic flooding, it can also encompass volunteers who attempt to deploy during other events such as wildfire emergencies. Can you imagine deploying to a wildfire disaster and almost getting trapped by the flames because no one told you the extent or the range of the fire? Well, it happened to me when I, with others, attempted to deploy during the Long Island wildfires a number of years ago. We were armed with everything we thought we needed…. except up-to-date information. No maps or directions were given so there we were “driving by the seat of our pants” in the dead of the night into what almost was a catastrophe for us all. Luckily, we back tracked and took the long way around finally reaching our deployment points.

Everyone was to blame for this screw-up.

We, as seasoned veterans of dozens of emergencies, were at fault because in our zeal to respond, we never thought to ask for additional information concerning the safest route or the extent of the wildfire. Our EC was also at fault for not automatically supplying us with any information other than the locations at which to deploy. This has always been a bone of contention with me. When deploying, it is the responsibility of every radio officer or EC to supply enough information (including at times MAPS labeled with deployment and “fall back” points) and possible “pitfalls” whenever we are asked to go near “harm’s way”. Notice, I also listed “fall back” points or locations? In emergency mode you have backup repeaters and simplex frequencies which are known to your group.You better also have backup locations which are known because, as an example, during that same wildfire event we had to evacuate from the deployed shelter due to shifting winds which caused the fire to endanger that location. Without the proper information, I had to make a very strong suggestion to the shelter manager with an alternate shelter option. (Another school within that same district which had an MOU with Red Cross) I shouldn’t have needed to do this, but the needs at the time, plus the lack of experience on the part of the shelter manager, made it vital that another location be quickly found. As we drove off to the alternate location, looking through my rear view mirror, I never saw flames as high as during this event.

Hopefully, you’ve read my series: “Emergency Communications In The Post WTC 9/11 Era” so you won’t make the same dumb, and dangerous, mistakes we did. Being ready, equipped, trained, experienced and eager is not enough. You also need to be ARMED with as much information as possible. This information can either be given to you OR you need to do your homework and arm yourself. If you aren’t given what you feel is adequate information…ASK!

Let’s leave the wildfire event and talk about another emergency which is more likely to happen in almost any place in the country. That is, any disaster which might have the element of severe flooding. This might occur during a hurricane, a stalled front which drops heavy rain over a prolonged period of time or even quick spring snow thaws. You might be lucky enough to have a home which is situated high above any possible flood plain. But what if you want to provide communications or some other form of help to either your local community or region? You still have to get there.

According to “Mr. Murphy”, the shortest route will almost always be the most hazardous. To circumvent this, you’ll need to do some investigation of the terrain between your home and any/all possible deployment locations. As a start, in Texas, as in many other states, you’ll find marked “flood gauges” on low areas of highways that are subject to flooding situations. This is all well and good, IF, they are all properly marked AND the sticks are in place to begin with. So what do you do with this very basic information? You need to get a detailed map of your county and perhaps the surrounding counties. (If you are limited in your deployment ability range, you may wish to use a smaller coverage map. In any event, make sure any map you use is as detailed as possible.) This will become your own personal “Master Deployment Map”. First, mark all important locations… those where you might deploy to, hospitals, etc. Also on this map, you should mark all those possible road flooding points (using a different color marker). By doing this, you are already better prepared to deploy than 99% of EmComm ops. This is a much better start, but not a finish. Next, you’ll need to investigate fragile points by using several options. One is to visit your local fire departments and talk to the veterans about any “high water rescues” and see where they were. If these locations were flooded before, chances are that they will be flooded again. Mark these locations on that map (use different colored markers so you can distinguish the difference).

Hooray for the Internet! This is a valuable tool in finishing off that map. Do a “Google” image search for pictures of flooded areas near your location and points between all possible shelters or locations you might be assigned to. Usually these images are also marked with locations, so mark these on your map.(again, another color) Again on the Internet, look up the terms “storm surge”, “inundation” and “flooding” to see how they relate to locations within your area and mark on your map any additional points such as flood plains, dams, etc. as needed. You might also wish to check at your local library for old issues of local papers regarding past major flooding. If you see any locations where you’ve placed more than one color mark, than you know this is a very fragile location and it would be best if you avoided it. ALSO… mark on that map all the main evacuation routes either out of your area or, if you are located inland, into your area. Theses are also areas that you may wish to avoid because they might be jammed with evacuees. Ok, now I’ve overlooked one very important resource when it comes to flooding. That resource are you neighbors. The ones who’ve been living in your neighborhood for years. They can be a vital source of information. Ask them about any flooding over the years. Heed their advice. Make more marks on that map. If you live in a state or area prone to mudslides, mark those hazards as well.

So, now what are you left with? A map that’s worth it’s weight in gold. A map that could make your deployment much easier. You’ll be armed with information so you can decide which might be the best route (and alternate) to any deployment location and what areas to avoid due to flooding or congested evacuation routes. This map becomes doubly valuable in case you need to redeploy or evacuate from your current shelter or deployment area to another location. When you do deploy, do so with extreme caution. Don’t attempt to cross streets which appear flooded, if you can’t see the pavement lines or if water is flowing. You don’t wish to add to the problem by becoming a flooding victim.

You might, if asked by net control, relay spots to avoid when your fellow volunteers are deploying by using your detailed map as a guide. Now that you’ve done this with a local area map (covering your county and surrounding areas), you should do the same with a regional map (covering most of your state or region). Time to do something else…. Make a copy of each map. It’s always good to have a backup and maps are a cheap, yet vital, investment.

You may wish to talk to either your service group or EC to do this as a project with all the members in your group. Creating these maps is a great training project. This way, everyone will have their own map and in doing so it will also aquaint everyone with the terrain they might be traversing. DO NOT leave it to a committee as they never get anything done. Remember, it’s your butt out there, so GET IT DONE even if you have to do it yourself!

After posting this webpage, I received an email from an EmComm volunteer in South Central Texas who was told by their ARES AEC that they should “pick up a map from a store on the way to their deployment location”. WHAT??? You’ve got to be kidding! I had to read that email twice to believe it. This, from an AEC??!! That person should be fired! How dangerously lazy and stupid a concept! Sure… It’s not their butt out there, it’s yours. Still another email outlined a serious problem when, in California, a large CERT group was asked to deploy during a large scale event and map supplies at every store were depleted. How, even if you could get your hands on maps, would they be as useful, being void of all hazard locations, as that map you should have which outlines flood plains, low areas, possible shelters, etc? Don’t wait until you’re on your way to a site or at the end of “hurricane season”. DO IT NOW!.

By the way…. You might also need to consult your map to get back home as the route you chose to get to an area may become impassable later due to continued rains or flooding. And for all you techies…

A GPS may tell you where you are, but not where all the flooded routes are.

To shorten a quote from another emailer:

“A map with a hole through it is still a map, a GPS with a hole through it is a piece of junk!”


One Response

  1. K5STX Says:

    Excellent article W2IK – always appreciate your insight and experiences in EmComm! Thank You!

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