Family Emergency Communications Plan

When things start to go in unexpected directions, you want to know what you are going to do. This is preparedness and it will give you the ability to remain calm so that you may make decisions that are in your best interests.

We have events come up in life where we can just hole up in our homes and wait things out. However, sometimes things are more serious and we need to be prepared for those times.

I am going to pose a situation that is based on details from an emergency preparedness conference I attended several years ago.

I am in the Portland Oregon metropolis. If you are not familiar with the area, like many cities, we have a ton of bridges and overpasses. In the case of a significant earthquake, those bridges and overpasses are to be closed until they can be inspected to ensure that they are safe to traverse. We are also a fair bit overdue for a massive earthquake based on geologic history.

Fictional scenario:

We have a stereotypical family; two parents, and two school age kids. For the sake of the discussion, the kids will be Tim in 8th grade, and Jenny, a junior in high school. You live in Vancouver, WA, just north of Portland, but work in Beaverton Oregon. Like many you make the drive on a daily basis. Your spouse, works in Camas WA, just east of Vancouver.

At 10:21AM on Tuesday, March 24th there is a 8.3 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter beneath downtown Portland, right in the heart of the city center. Power has gone out and since you work in a data center one floor below the ground floor, it is dark… then the emergency lights kick on.

What are you going to do? As a parent, you have two big concerns, your spouse, and your kids. We tend to think of them before we think of ourselves.

Before I proceed, I would like you to look away from the screen. Perhaps, close your eyes and really envision the situation, immerse yourself in it. I want you to take the time to really empathize with the virtual you in this exercise.

Did you reach for your desk phone to call your spouse? Sorry the phone was dead, remember that you are on emergency power and the digital phones may be down. The local phone network may also be off line.

Did you grab your cell phone? Oh, I am sad to say that the cell service will likely be unavailable to you. The local governments will take control as they will need the capacity for their emergency needs.

Time to make a break for it, hop in the car? Are you heading to Camas, where your spouse works? Or are you heading to one of your kids’ schools to scoop them up?

Remember that you work in Beaverton. All of the lights will likely be out, so there will be grid lock piling up in a hurry. Even more so since the pandemic since people have lost so much of their a) driving skills and b) common courtesy. It will be even worse as everyone will be in one of the various levels of panic for themselves, and/or their loved ones.

After two hours of crawling in traffic, getting past people and the intersections, you get onto highway 26 east bound. it is slow going, I mean SLOWWW. creeping at 2-5 miles per hour. Since the lanes are in motion, you avoid the urge to take the surface streets. Eventually, another hour or so later (the time is now 1:15PM) you get to where you can see the Fremont Bridge. You heart sinks. You see that they are directing everyone off just before the bridge. The bridge is closed. You are seeing major damage downtown. Some building that you take for granted are no longer standing. Traffic has now come to a full stop and the spring rains start to fall. You are flat out stuck. The radio finally starts working again and the emergency broadcast system announces that all bridges and over passes are closed until further notice. bridges closed…. O M G!!! Between your current location and home, there are two major bridges and a few overpasses. The only way around would possibly be to drive two and a half hours (in normal traffic, not this chaos) to Astoria, then about the same to come down I-5 to Vancouver. At some point along that trip you will come to more bridges and overpasses that will be closed. I hope that you know that back country to find those roads that will not be closed (yet).

Do you sit and cry with the enormity of the situation? I would not blame you. That is quite the load to bear. When you have a family (even if it is just you and a beloved pet), you count on each other to help the family unit work. you are now out of the equation, unable to do your share and you do not even know how the others in your family are doing. Are they safe?

Take a few minutes to really absorb your fictional position.

What could you have done to improve the situation?

Now let’s replay this scenario with a little prior planning and education.

At 10:21AM on Tuesday, March 24th there is a 8.3 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter beneath downtown Portland, right in the heart of the city center. Power has gone out and since you work in a data center one floor below the ground floor, it is dark… then the emergency lights kick on.

What are you going to do? As a parent, you have two big concerns, your spouse, and your kids. We tend to think of them before we think of ourselves.

You reach for your cell phone to call your spouse. That’s right, you did not even bother with the landline. You expected that it would be down. Darn, the cell phone system is jammed. Everyone is trying to use what bandwidth is available and your calls do not go through.

You proceed to the stairs (nobody wants to get stuck in the elevator, who knows how long it would take to get help at this point?) then up to the ground floor being mindful of any glass or other damage.

Once on the ground floor, you quickly but carefully head to your car, specifically to the trunk. You have an emergency box with items that you saw on a great website (one that perhaps was focused on cybersecurity). You grab the radio and roof mounted antenna. You put the antenna on top of the car and climb inside to plug the radio into the antenna and power. You sure are glad that you took that amateur radio test. [I have information further down in case you did not take and pass that test.] You go to the frequency that you and your spouse programmed for reaching each other if something like this came up. You listen for a minute or two, hearing nothing. Then you call out with your callsign asking for your spouse’s call sign, nothing. Wait three minutes then you hear your spouse calling you. (YAY!!) now you can assess how each of you are doing and what has happened. share what you know and if either had heard form the kids.

Okay, you both are safe where you are. The kids are in lockdown at school until a parent can get to them. Jenny breaks in on the conversation. She talked a teacher into letting her go to her car to use the radio for news and to check in on the family. She let’s you know that Tim’s school is okay and he is not able to leave yet.

Your spouse can get from Camas to the kids’ schools without crossing bridges and overpasses. It may take longer than normal, but it is safe.

You are stuck at the office. Since the rest of the family is safe and they will gather at home, you can change your frequency to the club repeater (a re-broadcasting tower where others will be exchanging news and calls for help). You talk to others in your radio club and learn that the bridges are already closed. It is best to find a safe place at or near your office to wait for improvements in the news.

If your radio is like mine, it can listen to one frequency, but if a second frequency has someone talking, it will flip over to it. The primary channel squawks, it is your spouse. The family is all together except for you. That is a relief. One more load off of your mind. While you would love to be with them, knowing that they are safe is a load off of your mind.

Your office building is doing some creaking and you hear the occasional popping sound. You talk to a couple of co-workers that are milling about and advise that they not stay in the building. There is no real shelter near the building, so the car if your home for the night. in that emergency box you have some food stowed away. It is just some military rations, but it will do for now. You do have some protein bars, but you want to use those sparingly. Perhaps they will be the dessert for eating those rations. 🙂

The radio squawks again. The spouse says that when they got home, there was damage and may not be safe to stay in. They will be grabbing their 72 hour go bags from the garage and heading to the family meetup point. There is a large park not far from home that has picnic shelters. As soon as they turn off the gas to the house, they will go to the park and wait for you. They have been listening to the radio and they are well aware that it will take time with all of the bridges closed.

In the morning, the radio is more cheerful. they have opened up some of the bridges. As you listen like a school kids waiting to hear if you have a snow day, the roads are listed. Bingo!! your path is open, but they have to clear a ton of abandoned vehicles form the road. It will be slow going, but there is hope.

You check in with the family. They are fine, a little cold and stiff, but they will make do. The police noticed them in the park, but understood the situation and they were being responsible so, no harm, no foul. they were allowed to remain under the shelter. A couple other families joined them, so they were making new friends.

You finally meet them in the park, it is already time to consider dinner. You all still have plenty of rations so you eat and settle in for the night.

The next day, day three, you get on the radio for a situation update. they are sheltering as many as they can in various locations. streets are clearing up and crews are starting to make repairs. Power is restored, and there are some fires due to appliances still being on or other reasons, but it is manageable and the family continues to camp. you or your spouse slip in and out of your house to get more supplies.

It takes a week, but services are back up for the most part. You start the insurance claim for your home, and that will take a while to resolve, but they put your family into a hotel. oh the hot bath feels glorious.

At dinner that night, the family discusses how thankful that they were to have put together a family emergency plan, one that included communications.

A fairly happy ending. Will yours be as happy? I hope so.

The difference between the two outcomes is largely based on your taking the time to sit down and think about possible scenarios. What are the natural risks in your area? Earthquake, wildfire, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, blizzard, flooding, or something else? For each of these situations there are plans to be made. As part of your emergency kit, you need notebooks, preferably on waterproof paper. Those notebooks are to hold emergency contacts, each of your various plans, the instruction on using your amateur radios and the frequencies that you will use.

Remember that I was mentioning a plan for using the radios when you did not pass the test? This is going to be a gray area. (I deeply hope that you will get your license and that they gray area will not apply to you.) If you find your self in a life threatening situation, you may operate an amateur radio without a license. This is an action that you take, to save yourself or others. It is really unlikely that anyone will track you down or take action. With that said, be respectful while you are on the radio. you are not doing business, and you are not swearing or screaming. The people on the radio will want to help you. It is one of the big reason that we take and pass the test. Many of us volunteer for emergency services.

So let’s talk more about that kit:

When you read the pages dealing with 24/72 hour bug out packs you will have those items. In addition you can buy a Baofeng (other other inexpensive handheld radio) 4 or 5 watt 2 meter radio. Since you do not have your license, you likely do not know what that means. Seek out a survival friendly ham radio operator to help you with the programming. You will want a couple simplex frequencies (direct radio to radio) and a few of your local repeater frequencies (your radio to a tower that re-broadcasts to the local area at higher power). When you are trying to reach your loved ones (in an emergency) use the simplex frequencies first. This will help you stay under the radar. If things are getting risky, you can use a repeater frequency to get help in the event that you are in a life threatening situation.

I know that this page was not full of warm and fuzzy feelings, but it was things that you need to consider. You even need to consider more dire situations and difficult scenarios. With a bit of luck, you will never have to open those notebooks unless you are updating them with new information.

I am opening this page for comments. If you have information that you would like considered for addition, I am all ears. Fire away with any questions and I will either help or find a resource for you.

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