Planning for Disaster in the Face of Earl

Wayne Rash

For the first time in 2010, a major hurricane is approaching the East Coast of the U.S. While this time it's probably going to be a glancing blow-at least until it gets to New England-wireless carriers are treating it like the real thing. The carriers I've contacted, including Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint, all report that they've made sure they have the generators at their cell sites tested and ready, that they have fuel supplies secured, and that they have mobile sites and mobile microwave relay towers staged to keep communications functioning.

As a spokesperson for Verizon Wireless said, the company is taking a belt-and-suspenders approach to hurricane preparation. To do this, the company has outfitted its switching centers and cell sites with permanent generators and also staged portable and mobile generators to make sure that power is available. The other wireless carriers say they're doing the same thing. Likewise, the major carriers have disaster plans in place, and personnel alerted, just in case.

Fortunately, it looks like this time those resources won't be needed except perhaps in eastern Massachusetts. Residents of the Maritime Provinces aren't so lucky. They'll get a direct hit with any of the projected storm tracks, and I presume that similar arrangements for wireless preparedness are taking place there as well.

But the fact that it looks like Earl will narrowly avoid the U.S. mainland this time doesn't mean all of that preparedness was wasted. The wireless carriers have obviously learned a big lesson since the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. While there's no doubt that a major disaster will probably take out some of their capability, it's also a good bet that communications will remain available to the emergency workers and first responders who really need it.

But the other part of the equation is you and your business. Are you ready? Each of the major wireless carriers had much the same advice, and it's a good idea to follow it, if there's even a slight chance a disaster may strike.

In terms of communications, this means that you can't count on your mobile phone for voice communications. Wireless capacity will likely be needed by those emergency workers I mentioned, and they all have a priority code for their wireless devices that lets them have access to a cell service instead of you.

However, text messaging should still work. SMS messages require little bandwidth, and even during the worst emergencies they make their way through eventually. If you have a smartphone, you may also be able to use e-mail or instant messaging, but the Internet in your area may not be available, so don't bet the farm on it.

If you need to keep up with the state of things during an emergency, your best friend is a battery-powered radio. Make sure you have extra batteries. And if you have emergency generating capability, make sure you arrange for fuel in advance. If you have a way to keep extra fuel on hand, that's a good idea, too.

And of course, if you have a real emergency in which there's a threat to life or safety, and you happen to have an amateur radio operator on your staff, by all means encourage that person to bring a radio to work. You can't use this in the furtherance of your business in any way, but if you need an ambulance or to be rescued, ham radio will work when nothing else will.

Meanwhile, learn to use text messaging and get some practice with it. When the next hurricane really does hit, this may be your only window to the outside world.

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