FEMA has released a January 2019 report entitled: "Building cultures of preparedness: report for the emergency management higher education community". The purpose of the report is to promote a new culture of preparedness approach to disaster preparedness, based on local trust relationships and institutional knowledge. But what really stands out is the dismal state of community and family/individual preparedness in the U.S. currently. The report starkly concludes that all prior efforts at encouraging preparedness such Ready.gov have failed, and Americans are no more prepared now than they were in 2007. Specifically:
The approach laudibly recommends engagement between higher education institutions, local cultural groups, emergency managers, and so on, catalyzed by cross-cutting "culture brokers" to build resilience and preparedness. It's unclear if any of this will succeed where past attempts have failed.
I think a broader question is exactly what kind of response from the public we should be trying to encourage right now, how the priorities for preparedness are changing. Natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency, and FEMA has clearly indicated that it cannot respond proportionately. In addition to natural disasters, communities and individuals face increasing threats from cyberattacks and potential infrastructure failures, as well as growing domestic and international geopolitical challenges.
Here is an idea. Data science, AI and machine learning are having a transformative effect on all industries and walks of life (I know because I'm a Professor of Data Science, among other things). I am sure we can harness these capabilities to have approaches to preparedness we haven't even thought about yet.
For example emergency managers have long carried out periodic hazard analysis to prioritize the risks to their communities so they can mitigate and prepare for the most severe threats. Why can't we do this for everyone? We could build apps and tools to help people really understand the specific, customized-to-them risks they face, across health, financial, natural disasters and other events, and driven by big-data risk analysis and AI. Risk models can be complex, but modern data science is up to the task. Further, apps could then prioritize steps people can take to mitigate their specific risks. We could even gamify it, with rewards for taking preparedness actions.
Data Science for Preparedness is something higher education, startups and the emergency management community can come together for, but financial support will be needed to make it a success, either from government funding or far-visioned investors.
Cellphones historically have a bad rap in Emergency Management. The dogma is that cellphones can't be relied on in a disaster, therefore they are not a primary part of the Emergency Manager's toolbox. However, this misses the point that the vast majority of the time cellphones do work, and cellphone infrastructure resilience is increasing with the proliferation of cellphone towers, rapid response by cellphone providers to bring in temporary towers in a disaster, and most recently the emergence of FirstNet, the robust cellphone network for emergency personnel. The chances are that most of the time you will be able to get some internet service either through the cellular network or Wifi. As resilience has grown, so has usefulness. There are now a plethora of apps and services that mean that if you do have internet service, you can to an amazing degree replicate the functions of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on the smartphone in your pocket. In this article we will describe a set of apps that will enable you to achieve the primary functions of the EOC: meeting & sharing space, phone and radio communications, situational awareness, and access to plans, documents and maps.
Most physical EOC's have a meeting area with a conference table for discussion and decision making. Events can be discussed together or in small groups; situational awareness can be shared; decisions can be made. There are two fantastic tools now available that enable you to replicate this physical space electronically: Zoom for virtual meetings, and Slack for text-based discussion. Virtual meetings have come a long way since the early days of connection problems, complex interfaces and poor quality: Zoom is the first online video/voice meeting system I have come across that really works well. It's super easy to join an existing meeting "room" through the app without an account, or you can create an account in a few minutes to generate a one-off or persistent meeting room. Importantly, Zoom automatically adjusts quality to the bandwidth available, so you can use it quite well even on a poor quality connection. You can use Zoom for free for meetings up to 45 minutes, or get unlimited use through a monthly subscription. If you have access to a desktop machine or laptop, you can also run Zoom on it for a larger display, and to free up your phone for other purposes. Slack is another easy to use tool that is designed for team collaboration through quick post-and-respond messages. You can create a "team" for free, and add "channels" for discussion on specific topics. Slack is now widely used in industry, and is great for quickly sharing information, links, photos and other situational awareness within a team. Communication can also be one-on-one.
Phones are a central component of a traditional EOC. Of course your phone is, itself, a phone, but you can do more than that: in fact, your phone can become multiple phones in one. VoIP (Voice-over-IP) apps such as Microsoft Skype for Business enable you to make and receive calls from your office phone on your smartphone. Google Voice, GrooveIP, and Sudo (iPhone only) among others allow you to create new VoIP phone numbers that operate over the data or WiFi connection of your phone. This is especially useful in the instance that cellphone towers may be down, but you are able to access WiFi. Need secure phone communications? Signal and Wire offer secure, end-to-end encrypted voice, video and text communication. While your phone doesn't fully replace a two-way radio it can get pretty close. Zello is a "radio over IP" app that is free to use, allowing a group to communicate just like a two way radio, but on your phone. You can set up channels for different purposes and control who gets to access them. With a paid ZelloWork plan, you can manage a whole system including dynamically adding and removing channels and users, GPS tracking of locations of users if desired, and even use a hardware bridge to connect a Zello channel to interoperate with a real two-way radio system. Zello can work with very little bandwidth, for instance on a 2G connection. Scanner Radio Pro (Scanner Radio Deluxe on iPhone) is one of several apps that use the Broadcastify live radio scanner feeds to allow monitoring of fire, EMS and public safety radio systems throughout the country. The "listeners alert" will let you know if the number of listeners to a particular feed suddenly increases, usually an indication of a major event. Often this notification comes well before other "news alerts" about an event.
There are many apps that can allow you to achieve good situational awareness before, during and after emergency incidents. Twitter is very useful to get real time social media posts about an event (search for a term related to the event and select Latest to get latest tweets), and Twitter Lists can be used to filter posts to just those by certain users, e.g. for local breaking news, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on (you can see some example lists on the AllHazards Twitter account). There are several good weather apps available that provide access to forecasts, current conditions, and weather alerts including Weather Underground, The Weather Channel, DarkSky and Accuweather. These apps do not generally give access to more technical forecasts, such as those from the Storm Prediction Center, but you can access these through the web browser in mobile friendly format on the AllHazards Dashboard. Of the many weather radar apps, Radarscope stands out due to its quality of radar imagery, reliability and advanced features. There are many other apps available for specific hazards, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. PulsePoint is a fantastic app thats primary purpose is to alert citizens if someone needs CPR close to them, but secondarily gives access to a filtered version of the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, so is great for seeing what 911 calls are coming in locally. PulsePoint requires an agreement with local agencies, so if your local dispatch is not yet on it, now is a good time to look into it. The Waze navigation app is also a good way to find out about traffic conditions in an area. Apps from FEMA and the Red Cross round out your situational awareness toolbox.
It is now easy to access documents on your phone that are stored locally and in the cloud, including those in common formats such as Microsoft Office and PDF. DropBox and Box are two of the most popular cloud services, and their apps have integrated viewers for these formats. If end-to-end encryption is required, look at some of the smaller providers like Sync and NextCloud. While the built in phone mapping apps cover most needs, they do rely on a live internet connection. Several offline mapping applications are now available: one of the best and easiest to use is Maps.Me. Also take a look at Maplets, which allows you to download copies of paper maps, some of which are geotagged so you can locate your position on them.
So what are you waiting for? Well go ahead and make your smartphone into a pocket EOC, but do be aware there are some limitations. None of what you can do on your phone should mean you do away with fail-safe, redundant established systems that have proven to be resilient to disasters. Running apps on your phone that use the speakerphone extensively, including the two way radio and scanner apps, and the videoconferencing apps, can kill your battery quickly, so make sure you have some ways on hand to recharge your battery when needed.
Cover photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash. Images for Zoom, Zello and Maps.me taken from their respective websites.
Hurricane Harvey is on track to have a possibly significant impact on Texas and the Gulf Coast, including winds around 135MPH and devastating floods and storm surge. Below are some links to resources that can be used to track this developing situation. For advance discussion of hurricanes and other hazards, we recommend that you subscribe to the weekly Critical Threat Outlook. You can also access the free AllHazards Dashboard for general current information on threats to the United States. We will try to keep this post updated as the situation develops, including to specific local resources for this storm.
General Hurricane Resources
Specific for Hurricane Harvey
The annual back-to-back security and hacking conferences, Black Hat and Defcon just ended in Las Vegas. These conferences are full of presentations and briefings on deep research in cybersecurity and privacy, and the findings presented often make the headlines. It's well worth browsing their websites, where many research papers and summaries are presented. Here are some of the most interesting findings from this year's conferences.
Again, more details on these and other presentations can be found on the Black Hat and Defcon sites.
This is a reduced-size version of the map: the full-size version can be found here.
Do you know where your nearest PEP radio station is? PEP (Primary Entry Point) radio stations are battle-hardened commercial radio stations, usually in the medium wave (AM) band, that serve as initial entry points for national Emergency Alert System traffic. In a widespread disaster situation they could be vital information sources if local infrastructure is down. PEPs are not well known though - to the extent that there are very few places you can find a list of them. I'm therefore hugely grateful to Al Kenyon from FEMA's IPAWS for providing the above map, which not only gives current information on the location of the PEP stations by station callsign, but also rings that give approximate ranges for the transmitters. Stations are color coded according to the extent they have been updated. Blue indicates legacy PEPs with FEMA generators and fuel systems. Yellow indicates no FEMA generator or fuel system as-yet. Red indicates sites that are completely modernized with HEMP (High-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse) protection. To get the frequency for the station nearest you, simply look it up on the FCC search site. The image is large and high resolution, so the best way to look at it is to download it. This version replaces a prior, incomplete map that I had prepared based on data I found online. Note that there are PEP stations outside the continental U.S., for example WVUV-FM in Pago Pago, American Samoa.
Privacy isn't something most people think about too much. You've probably happily given out your name, address, phone numbers, email addresses and other information, and freely enjoy sharing photos and opinions with friends on social media. However, deep learning algorithms and cloud platforms are enabling a new era, where machines can get unprecedented insights into our everyday lives by mining millions of data points about us. Some of this can be for good, but it can also work against us - for instance when your health insurance doubles in price because the insurance company's algorithms predict that your health is going to go downhill soon, maybe based on your grocery shopping habits, cellphone trail and hypochondriatic web searches of late; or when your credit card information gets leaked in the latest hack. It's thus now an important life skill to understand the choices we have as individuals about what we do and do not share with the rest of the world, and what access we give to sensitive information such as our credit card numbers.
The Complete Privacy & Security Desk Reference Volume I: Digital is by far the most comprehensive guide to understanding the privacy and security choices we make in the digital world, and to how to take some control back about what gets shared about us. The book covers a multitude of techniques from the basic that we should all do, such as setting the privacy settings of browsers and using VPNs - to highly advanced methods such as masking credit card numbers, setting up aliases and keeping your home address information completely private, that are probably only going to be realistic if you are a public figure or you are unfortunate enough to be threatened by someone. The chapters are helpfully organized into "basic", "intermediate", "advanced" and "expert". Several chapters lead you through a process to find out exactly what information about you is publicly accessible on the internet, and how to have some of it removed if you wish to.
The book goes into a lot of detail about each of the topics it covers - for instance which browser you should use (Firefox), and exactly what settings to choose to prevent third party cookies tracking you. What is for sure - and the book is clear about this - is that there is a trade-off between security, privacy and convenience. If I have any criticism of this book, it would be that once you get started implementing its suggestions it is not clear where to stop, since everything is connected to everything else. Unless you want to live like a secret agent in a foreign country, you're going to have to draw the line somewhere. But whatever your response, you will learn a lot about what digital trail you are leaving, and what choices you have to do something about it.
The book was first released just over a year ago, and already some of the information is a little out of date, but most is still current. To get the latest, up to the minute advice, follow the authors' Complete Privacy and Security Podcast. Overall I would highly recommend the book, as it shows that you have much more control about your digital data than you probably realize, and it gives you tools to help you find the right place for you on the privacy-convenience continuum.
If you have an interest in astronomy, or follow those "end of the world" blogs, you've probably heard about solar flares, and the potential impact of extreme events on the earth. Solar flares are associated with sunspots, are a regular feature of the Sun, and are normally not something to be worried about. However, due to solar cycles, about every 11 years or so there is a period of increased sunspot activity which can result in flares which actually have an impact on the earth. Recently we have heard stories of potential doom, including worldwide power outages and GPS satellites being knocked out. The next solar maximum will be about 2025. Should we be worried?
Well, yes and no. Most of the concern revolves around the potential for a very strong solar flare which could potentially overload transformers and cause widespread, and possibly permanent power outages. This is a real threat, and was described recently in a National Academy Of Sciences report. In particular, a repeat of a very large flare which occurred in 1859 (known as the Carrington Event) could, according to the report, cause an electromagnetic overload of power grids, cause transformers to explode, with damage that might not be repairable for 5-10 years. Now, the Carrington Event appears to be quite unusual, and most solar events are much less spectacular. But it should be on our preparation radar. Smaller scale events can still cause regional outages (such as in 1989, when a solar flare resulted in a widespread outage in Quebec, lasting 12 hours and affecting 5 million people)
Fortunately, we have some wonderful resources available, especially from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center which, like its terrestrial counterpart, offers warnings of activity that could cause problems. However, to be able to use these warnings and resources, we need a quick lesson in solar flares. Here is the super-quick version: for a more detailed account see the SWPC FAQ. Basically, sunspots can result in solar flares which are intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation. These only really affect the earth if the sunspot is pointing right in our direction. The most immediate impact of these earthbound flares is a very quick increase in X-ray flux. You can see X-ray flux values in this plot from the NOAA GOES satellite (live version available on the SWPC site):
Anything over "4" is classed as a storm, although it's really 8's and 9's which spell trouble. Again for a mapping to real effects, see the G-scale on the NOAA Space Weather Scale.
Adapted from an article originally published in allhazards.blogspot.com
Some of you might be familiar with the AllHazards Blog where we have been posting for many years about breaking events, informatics in disasters and emergency response; and new perspectives on preparing for small and big emergencies and disaster. We will be migrating the blog to this site, so that everything is in one place. We will start by re-posting some of the most popular entries from the AllHazards Blog.
We will no longer post the regular TAB release as an "update" since these are routine.