A facility emergency communications strategy could greatly increase survival chances during a disaster

facility emergency communications strategy
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By Terry Bruns

In dealing with an emergency or a disaster at the facility level, communications is paramount to reducing life loss, property damage, liability and stress. Whether communicating with the authorities, internal response team members, building occupants or family members of critical staff, the importance having a robust communications strategy cannot be overstated.

Emergencies

Emergencies are stand-alone events that are generally limited to a single facility, are short in duration and where there are ample community resources available to deal with the incident. Examples would be a fire, medical emergency, internal hazardous material event, bomb threat, power failure, or active shooter. Emergency response infrastructure such as fire alarms, automatic fire suppression, emergency power, emergency voice paging, or smoke control systems are generally minimally impacted.

In the case of modern high-rise structures, mass communications would be facilitated via the emergency voice paging systems and fire fighter’s telephones which are present on each floor. In low-rise residential and commercial facilities, communications would be handled simply via the fire alarm in case of fire or phone, runner or email for other emergencies. Tenants that have the WPS eVac app on their smart phones would be capable of receiving emergency announcements via eNotifire and alert building emergency response team to problems that they are having.

Disasters

A disaster is an emergency event that by size and scope not only impacts the critical infrastructure that would support an emergency response but may also impact the community responders. Examples of disasters are moderate to severe earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, forest fires, tsunamis, large explosions (including nuclear), external hazardous materials spills or war. One of the first casualties of a disaster is the ability to communicate through normal channels. Whether it is due to congestion, utility failure, or equipment damage, being able to communicate to those within the facility or outside the facility (authorities or loved ones) could be non-existent.

Normal channels of communications within the facility (voice paging, fire phones, telephones, or email) could be impacted or too dangerous to operate. Radios that relied upon a repeater to function could be inoperable due to A/C and generator failure. Having a back-up set of quality two way radios that don’t rely on a repeater would enhance communications between command and operations teams within the building.

Communication with the authorities or loved ones outside of the facility could prove to be a larger challenge. It is common for disasters to have an impact on phone and cellphone service throughout an impacted community. Alternate ways of communications with the authorities would need to be established.

One of the most reliable alternate communications options would be the use of an amateur radio unit (ham radio). Most communities have an emergency operations centre/center (EOC). Most communities also have ham radio clubs where volunteers from those clubs will respond to the EOC, sometimes with their own equipment and monitor/communicate with other communities and first responders in the field. Acquiring a ham radio license and a ham radio would allow you to communicate directly with the EOC and other ham users within the community. Portable ham radios can be purchased new for as little as $60 (providing you have a license) and will in most cases easily reach a community EOC.

amateur radio unit

Unfortunately, unless you have friends or family nearby that are also ham radio operators, communications with loved ones outside of the impacted area to let them know your status will be virtually impossible with a ham radio if normal channels fail. Fortunately there are other technologies available that would allow for alternate communications outside of the impacted area. These are satellite based technologies. Satellite phones (Satphones) have come down in price as has the subscription rates. Other satellite communicators, such as the inReach pictured below, connect with your cellphone via Bluetooth and allow you to text or email from your smartphone contact list. As long as you can see the southern sky, you will be able to communicate your status to friends and family.

Satellite phones

Having both of these portable technologies available to you during a disaster could greatly increase your survival chances during a disaster.

Terry Bruns is the CEO of WPS Disaster Management Solutions.