Author: Ralph Pledger
I want to introduce an issue that I am calling "Civilian Disaster Communications" (CDC). By this, I mean the methods by which citizens will attempt to communicate with people who are dear to them in the aftermath of a disaster. This is different from official communications by police, firefighters military personnel etc, but they do overlap somewhat. Examples of CDC are easy to formulate. Parents will be desperate to communicate with a school if their children were in the school during a quake; communications with hospitals will be an area of particular concern; communications with places of work will be critical to many people. These efforts will take place during a state of general distress and chaos.
From experience gained from Hurricane Katrina, we should expect that after a major earthquake nearly all communications that depend on fixed facilities such as cables or cell towers will be non-functional. This means that the devices that will be usable are those that can operate independently of central resources, all or nearly all battery powered. In this group is short distance line of sight devices such as GMRS and FRS radios, satellite-linked telephones and some amateur radio links especially those operated through RACES. Of course, all of these will depend on how prepared their operators are to use the devices. If a sufficient perception of urgency can be generated, other technologies that are not now available could be brought into use.
However the largest gap between what we have now and what will be needed is not with the available technology, but rather the lack of an organization to purchase, deploy and utilize it. Consider what will be involved in a speculative scenario involving one elementary school. The school will need to possess communication devices that will survive the disaster and be ready and personnel capable of operating them. The volume of the communications will be massive. At the other end of the communications link it is not realistic to think that all parents will be equipped to communicate with the school directly, more realistically a subset of parents will provide the communication links and others will need to travel to their homes. Obviously, this will require a lot of preparation including such things as training and periodic testing. A lot of work will need to be done to create this robust environment.
One approach to the problem is represented by the BEECN system in Portland and a similar system in Seattle. Currently, the BEECN consists of about 50 sites distributed around Portland and suburbs at which volunteers will deploy in the case of an emergency and set up communications nodes working with amateur radio operators. If each school, hospital and another point of critical communication was also a node in a system modeled on BEECN it will be possible to encompass a large part of the emergency communications into one system rather than having separate systems for individual entities such as schools and hospitals. BEECN is a promising start but will need much scaling up to be able to meet the potential demand. This task will require the efforts of for-profit, not-for-profit and government entities, and it will be costly. However, like so many of the tasks needed to prepare the region to endure and recover from an earthquake disaster, taking no action will be more expensive in the long run.