Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Twitter for 911 calls - is it really useful?

Twitter has recently proved its usefulness in a variety of disasters and emergency situations (see my blog post on this). But what about as a backup to the 911 system? In most cases, a person in distress who has access to Twitter on their mobile device would also be able to make a 911 call (or whatever the local emergency number is). However, there are common circumstances where this might not be so: a person is in a poor reception area and can only send text messages; they are under threat and need to ask for help covertly; they are in odd locations (e.g. international waters) and it is not clear how to get assistance; or they are in a disaster area and 911 infrastructure is down or is overloaded. Some of these may be addressed by the enhanced 911 system ability to receive text messages, but it is not clear yet how this will pan out. Twitter is already there and it works.

In these kinds of circumstance, anecdotal media reports (see for example this USA Today article) indicate success in that if a person has enough followers (how many is enough?) one of them will likely see a distress message in time, and call 911 (assuming there is enough information to locate the individual). Of course having geotagged tweets can help with this (although if a person is in poor cellphone coverage area assisted GPS will likely not work). But it seems like it would be useful for there to be some way to "elevate" your tweets in an emergency, to stand out against the background chatter. Some way to say "I really need help now" that stands out, like a CB channel 9 or Marine Channel 16.

The obvious way to do this is with a hashtag. Let's say we had a dedicated "I need emergency help" hashtag that could be monitored by agencies (even constrained to a geographic area). Well there are problems: first almost every available easy-to-remember hashtag is already widely used for non-emergency messages - just try a search for #911, #helpme, #call911, #needhelpnow, etc. Even if you devised a more unusual (and harder to remember) hashtag like #ineed911help, you'd get overloaded with retweets, commentary on the "does the #ineed911help system work?" etc very quickly. Second, you would likely get too many responses - imagine a 911 center suddenly getting 10000 calls.

Another way would be natural language processing - identifying patterns, particular phrases, etc, that likely constitute a genuine emergency call. Maybe a predictive model based on these terms. But is this really likely to work? And what about the lawsuits when it doesn't work?

So I think that for right now, the best system is no system. But I think this is something we should be talking about. If you have thoughts on this, please leave comments!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Resources for X24 - test of social media in disasters

X24 is a SIMULATED emergency in California based on a scenario of an earthquake centered on Bombay Beach California, followed by a possible Tsunami. In a real disaster, this page would aggregate resources to help people get the latest information. Here I will do the same for this exercise. For a real event, see, for example, the Boulder Wildfire page.

Twitter search for #x24 OR #californiaearthquake - latest twitter updates
X24 facebook page - latest updates
NEW Google map for reports (also below, zoom out to see bigger picture or click on link)
NEW Another Google Map of reports
Map showing details of epicenter
Map of incoming Tsunami wave
NEW Request Relief - form to fill in to ask for aid
USGS Recent Earthquakes - detailed information about recent worldwide earthquakes including reports submitted by the public
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center - issues tsunami warnings for the pacific and bulletins following major earthquakes

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Effectively engaging citizens in disaster and emergency management - 3 steps we need to take

One of my motivations behind creating this blog was to make a better connection between the world of emergency management, and the everyday world most of us inhabit. Emergency management has well thought out tools and resources for preparation, response, mitigation and recovery from emergencies and disasters, from the federal to the local government level, but somehow most of these remain walled off from the general public, and the approach of EM to the public has tended to lack engagement (despite worthwhile efforts like CERT and citizen corps). For example, how many Emergency Management departments even make their hazard analysis easily available to the public? Yet such information can help individuals make much better decisions about how to prepare themselves (see my blog entry on this).  Everyone agrees that the key to disaster planning is engagement of the public, yet participation is very low (see In Case of Emergency blog post). So what is wrong? Well I think part of the problem is that we still think of this as a top-down process - how can we engage them, the citizenry in our processes? This results in a paternalistic approach to citizen involvement (as characterized by the duct tape debacle on the federal level). So what can we do better? Well, here are three things I think we could practically do now to improve citizen involvement in preparing for disasters.

1. Take the social media bull by the horns. At all levels, from local to federal, use social media (Twitter, blogs) to ask questions, not just disseminate information. Employ a programming-whiz intern kid to develop social media apps like Google maps for your local community. Ask people to submit their resources. Give prizes for social media resources voted the most useful. Be honest and ask for input on matters for which we are ill prepared. Just get on board and do it properly, rather than in a "I don't quite understand this but I know I'm supposed to have a twitter account" kind of way. If you don't believe this is important, see "10 reasons social media is important in a real crisis"

2. Start true innovation in the use of technology in Emergency Management. Identify where the rest of the world is technologically way ahead of the EM community, and embrace these rather than trying to replicate them in an expensive fashion. Buy everyone involved in EM an iPad. Employ people to write apps for EM. Give these away free to everyone, not just emergency managers. This could be done cheaply and effectively, while engaging citizenry in the process. Federally, start an equivalent of Innocentive for finding solutions to hard problems. Get out of the grants-expensive vendor model.

3. Find ways to give people real, concrete qualifications and powers rather than nominal ones. Work with universities and training institutes to let people train as EMT's or firefighters for free, then use them in a real official capacity when resources are stretched. Give them free BLS kits. Employ volunteer directors (and give them real power) who actively recruit key members of a community who can help in disasters. Talk to survivalists about how to scale up their worst-case-scenario planning to a local community (see my blog post on this).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Peewink Boulder Colorado Fire Resources

Here are some resources for getting the latest information the Boulder Peewink Wildfire. As of 7pm Friday, latest reports indicated the fire had dropped to 2-3 acres, may be contained by 9pm, and all evacuations and closures had been lifted. 

Real-time information
Boulder Office of Emergency Management - evacuation, road closure information
Twitter search for #peewinkfire OR #peewink
Boulder County Live Scanner Feeds and Incident Updates - listen live to police and fire radio traffic
InciWeb - too early yet but check back for official updates, maps
Map of tweeted reports by Colorado project EPIC (for fourmile fire but may be updated for this fire soon)
Local news sites: 9NewsCBS4KDVRHuffington Post Denver
Google News updates for Boulder Fire
NIFC National Fire News - only updated periodically but has detailed, official information
WILDCAD - Choose a Colorado site to get dispatch updates

Help for those affected
Nederland Community Center (click for map) - 750 hwy 72 - meeting place for evacuees

Boulder weather forecast products and warnings

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hurricane Karl Resources

According to the 12pm Friday NHC advisory, Karl has made landfall on the coast of Mexico, about 10 miles N of Veracruz, with sustained winds of 115mph. Hurricane watches and warnings are in effect for Mexico: a warning is in effect from Veracruz to Cobo Rojo. Here are some resources for tracking the storm. I will keep this page updated as the storm develops. Please also check out the dashboard and resources tabs on this site for more resources. The image on the left shows the current positions of Karl, Igor and Julia

National Hurricane Center - official, watches, warnings, probability cones, etc
Stormpulse Hurricane Igor Tracker - high quality maps and tracking tools for Karl
Weather Underground Tropical Page - nice tracking resources
Tampa Bay Online Hurricane Guide - with local resources for Florida
Tweet map for tweets about Karl in Mexico gulf region (also below)
Google Latest on Karl - latest Google hits for Karl (i.e. most recently posted)
Google News on Karl - hits for Karl on Google News
Twitter updates for #karl
Gulf Coast Hurricane Tracker - blog with updates and discussion
Hurricane Watch Net - streaming audio during active events (likely to start soon for Karl)
Radio Reference Wiki Major Events - radio frequencies and such like for major disasters

Tweet map for references to Karl

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Twitter in disasters - survival of the fittest information?

One of the commonest concerns I hear from the emergency management community about the use of social media such as Twitter in disasters (and citizen involvement in general) is one of trust: specifically, the risk of misinformation and rumors spreading virally and thus causing all kinds of untold complications. Officials usually carefully curate information that is given to the public through well organized channels (e.g. a Public Information Officer at the scene). Conversely anyone can post anything on Twitter. In a recent post I talked about the effectiveness of Twitter and other social media resources in the Boulder wildfire (and list other articles that discuss this too). One of the most striking things for me was the accuracy of most of the information in these sources. Sure there was misinformation (such as suggestions the fire had spread to locations it hadn't for instance, and miscalculations about the size of the fire) but this seemed to be quickly be corrected by other posts. Further, when official information was made available (such as on InciWeb), this spread quite virally around with Twitter. So probably many more people saw the official, curated information thanks to Twitter. So here are my questions: in disasters, does social media tend to be self-curating, with "survival of the fittest" information (i.e. misinformation gets overwhelmed by good information)? Does this reliably happen, and could it go horribly wrong (e.g. a viral false rumor causing panic)? And how might we analyze trends on Twitter to differentiate between these two?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hurricane Julia Resources

Hurricane Julia formed from a tropical storm on Tuesday. According to the 5am Friday advisory, it is moving WNW and is a category 1 storm with sustained winds of 85mph. Here are some resources for tracking the storms. I will keep this page updated as the storm develops. Please also check out the dashboard and resources tabs on this site for more resources. The image on the left shows the current positions of both Igor and Julia.

National Hurricane Center - official, watches, warnings, advisories, probability cones, etc
Stormpulse Hurricane Julia Tracker - high quality maps and tracking tools for Julia
Weather Underground Tropical Page - nice tracking resources
Tampa Bay Online Hurricane Guide - with local resources for Florida
Google Latest on Julia - latest Google hits for Julia (i.e. most recently posted)
Google News on Julia - hits for Julia on Google News
Gulf Coast Hurricane Tracker - blog with updates and discussion
Hurricane Watch Net - streaming audio during active events (not yet for Igor)
Radio Reference Wiki Major Events - radio frequencies and such like for major disasters (should they happen)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Loveland Wildfire Resources

Here are some resources for getting the latest information the Loveland Colorado wildfire. I will update this page as the situation develops. Also check out the dashboard and resources sections on the tabs above. As of September 15th, the fire was 35 percent contained, but there were concerns about winds Wednesday night.

A meeting place for residents who have evacuated is at the Church of Loveland at 3835 S.W. 14th Street.  Residents needing shelter for large animals should call Loveland's police dispatcher at 970-667-2151. Officials said both small and large animals have been rescued from the fire zone. Members of the public wanting to get information on family members can call 211 or toll free on 1-866-485-0211.

Real-time information
InciWeb page for Reservior Road fire - perimeter maps, and updated official information
City of Loveland Website - with information posted about evacuations, etc. Also listen to 1610AM radio.
NEW Loveland Fire Tweet Map - see also below
ABC7 page for the Loveland Fire - lots of information
NIFC National Fire News - only updated periodically but has detailed, official information
7News Google Map - probably the most useful currently (see below)
Matt's Google Map - showing evacuation shelters, etc, has current information
Twitter posts on #lovelandfire OR #reservoirroadfire
Larimer County Live Scanner Feeds and Incident Updates - listen live to police and fire radio traffic
Larimer County emergency management information on the fire
Denver Post Article
Colorado Wildfires Facebook Page
WILDCAD - Choose a Colorado site to get dispatch updates
Google map with fires, evacuations and road closures from scanner traffic and news reports (archival only, appears not to have been updated since Monday)
Colorado fires crowdmap - populated with reports from twitter (archival only, not updated since Sep 13)
Loveland Fire Map - another Google map (doesn't seem to be updated)

Photos and videos
Loveland fire photos from joelcomm
9News Slideshow
Photos on the Examiner website
KDVR Raw Footage video of the fire

News sites
Google News updates for the Loveland fire

Current Loveland Fire Tweet Map - best maximized to full screen, zoom in
Loveland fire map, drag to see more

View Reservoir Road Fire Near Loveland, Colo. in a larger map

Hurricane Igor Resources

According to the 5am Tuesday NHC update, Igor has sustained 75mph winds, making it a category 1 hurricane. Hurricane watches, tropical storm warnings and Environment Canada wind warnings have been issued for Newfoundland in Canada. It will likely come near Newfoundland later today. Much of the east coast of the US has high surf advisories and risk of rip currents (see wave height predictions below). Here are some resources for tracking the storm. Twitter is a great way to get the very latest updates. I will keep this page updated as the storm develops. Please also check out the dashboard and resources tabs on this site for more resources. The image on the left shows the current positions of both Igor and Julia.

Resources for Canada / Newfoundland
U.S. National Hurricane Center - official, watches, warnings, probability cones, etc
Environment Canada Warnings for Newfoundland/Labrador
Newfoundland CBC weather blog with lots of information on potential impact of Igor
CBC Newfoundland and Labrador - news updates
St John's Telegram - news updates
NEW Telegram article on current impact of Igor on Newfoundland
NEW Twitter search on #igor OR #newfoundland
Stormpulse Hurricane Igor Tracker - high quality maps and tracking tools for Igor
Hurricanetrack website
 with live updates
Weather Underground Tropical Page - nice tracking resources
Weather Channel Igor Animated Satellite Image
Weather Underground Tropical Page
 - nice tracking resources
Wave height prediction from NOAA 

Official information
U.S. National Hurricane Center - official, watches, warnings, probability cones, etc
Bermuda EMO - latest official information
Detailed hurricane track forecast for Bermuda from Bermuda weather service
BELCO - with information on Bermuda power outages

Social Media
Google map for submission of storm reports in Bermuda (see below)
Bernews facebook page with submitted updates
Bermuda webcams: BSN and hurricanetrack
Long tails and bermuda shorts blog - personal blog from the "front line"

News sites
Bermuda Sun: latest information
Bernews: Lots of local updates for Bermuda
Examiner.com page with updated information on Igor and Bermuda
Royal Gazette - lots of useful information
Google Latest on Igor - latest Google hits for Igor (i.e. most recently posted)
Google News on Igor - hits for Igor on Google News

Photos and Videos
Video of storm impacting Bermuda from Examiner website
Pictures of flooding in Boaz, Bermuda

Tracking resources
Stormpulse Hurricane Igor Tracker - high quality maps and tracking tools for Igor
Hurricanetrack website with live updates
Wave height prediction from NOAA - potential surf impact on US eastern seaboard
Weather Underground Tropical Page - nice tracking resources
Tampa Bay Online Hurricane Guide - with local resources for Florida
Gulf Coast Hurricane Tracker - blog with updates and discussion on Igor
Hurricane Watch Net - streaming audio NOW ACTIVATED FOR IGOR
Radio Reference Wiki Major Events - radio frequencies and such like for major disasters (should they happen)

Google maps of storm reports - please submit updates

View Bermuda Igor Storm Reports in a larger map

Tweets about Igor in Bermuda

Friday, September 10, 2010

San Bruno Gas Explosion Resources

Here are some resources I've collected for getting information on the San Bruno gas explosion. I'll keep this updated as the situation develops

Google map showing fire location, shelters, videos, etc (see below for embedded version)
NEW San Bruno Fire CrowdMap - another map with latest info
NEW Volunteer to help
NEW SFGate Maps Shelters Closures Donations
NEW Photos at LA times
NEW ABC7 Resources for San Bruno Residents
NEW Interactive before/after photo on LA Times site
San Mateo County Fire Feed - live audio feed of radio scanner traffic
San Mateo County Law Enforcement Feed - live audio feed of radio scanner traffic
San Bruno Fire on Twitter (#sanbrunofire)
Google News - updates on San Bruno fire
Google Latest - slightly different results to Google News, latest web updates
News outlets: KRON4CBS5KGOKTVUNBC Bay Area SFGate California Beat SanBrunoPatch
Photos on TimesUnion site
Videos on Youtube of San Bruno Fire
NEW Viral videos and pictures at KTLA
Red Cross Safe and Well - let loved ones know you are OK
San Mateo County Emergency Management (no updates yet)
Pacific Gas & Electric

Evacuation Center/Shelter: San Bruno Parks & Rec / Veterans Center, 251 City Park Way
American Red Cross Hotline: (650) 259-1750 OR (888) 443-5722

View San Bruno Gas Explosion in a larger map

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Four mile canyon wildfire and social media

An interesting development over the last few days has been the part that social media has played in providing information for people affected by the Four Mile Canyon wildfire. There have been a number of news reports about including one in the Denver Post, as well as in blogs such as OSM. Of particular interest is the general lack of satisfaction with the reverse 911 system contrasted with satisfaction with a variety of social media provisions from the simple (searching for the #boulderfire tag on Twitter) to the more involved (Google map showing fire bounds, fires, etc) and forums to help people recover, particularly Sparkplace Forum and FourMileFireHelp. Also, based on the reported usage statistics, several hundred people at any one time were listening to the live audio feeds of emergency services radio traffic. Indeed my blog posting listing some of these resources got a huge number of hits and was posted in various places such as the Gold Hill Government site: perhaps there is as much need for such sites which aggregate resources "on the fly" as there is for the social media resources themselves. I think there are many interesting dimensions to this whole movement. Emergency managers and public safety officials as a whole do need to embrace all of these resources, and maybe can act as a curator of them in some way (e.g. posting the most useful on official sites, and helping filter out misinformation).

Update Sep 14. True to my interest in social media aggregation, here are some of the articles that I have found on Social Media in the Boulder fire. Please leave a comment or email me if you know of more!

Tropical Storm Igor set to become Atlantic hurricane

Tropical storm Igor is expected to strengthen over the weekend and possibly become a hurricane by Sunday. It is on track to potentially affect the east coast of the U.S. towards the end of next week (although it could also head further north and east, and not be a problem at all). No hype yet, but here are some resources to keep an eye on it. I will keep this page updated as the storm develops

National Hurricane Center updates for Igor - official, watches, warnings, probability cones, etc
Stormpulse - very nice graphics and tools
Hurricane Watch Net - streaming audio during active events (not yet for Igor)
Weather Underground Tropical Page - nice tracking resources
Google Latest - latest Google hits for (i.e. most recently posted)
Google News - hits for Igor on Google News
Twitter updates for #igor
Radio Reference Wiki Major Events - radio frequencies and such like for major disasters (should they happen)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Telephone alerting problems with Boulder Wildfire

Here is an article about problems with the system for calling people's phones in emergencies in the Boulder Colorado Four Mile Canyon wildfire currently ongoing. Interestingly this same issue came up a few years ago with a San Diego fire. It seems there are two basic problems: first, most people nowadays who still have landlines, have cordless phones which die immediately there is a power outage (or presumably services with internet providers which can have the same trouble); second, it seems to be difficult to keep an up-to-date database - I am not sure why this is, but it's mentioned in both articles. Of course there are particular problems with the trend to go "cellphone-only": with cellphones, people and tend to change cellphone numbers regularly and indeed the whole premise of dialling a geographic location is fuzzy.  It's hard to know what to say about this: it's probably still the most effective way of paging a group of people, and alternatives like text messaging run into all kinds of problems of their own. I guess it's back to the old mantra: no one system is perfect, and always have multiple, redundant systems. Ideally, citizens would be encouraged to submit their preferred details (phone, email, cellphone/text etc) to a local emergency management office and in an incident all methods would be used for information.

Nasa Colorado Four Mile Canyon Fire Satellite Photo

NASA has published this interesting satellite photo of the Boulder Colorado Four Mile Canyon Fire from the MODIS on the Terra satellite. It shows Boulder completely occluded by smoke. Interesting too is the extent of the eastward plume. More details are on NASA's page.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Colorado Wild Fire Resources

Here are some resources for getting the latest information the Boulder Colorado Four Mile Canyon fire.

Real-time information
NEW DTSAglile Situational Awareness Map
NEW Boulderfire.com - tweets, get/offer help and donation resources
Boulder EOC fire boundary and evacuation map (PDF)
Map of tweeted reports by Colorado project EPIC
Map of tweeted reports colored by time by Colorado project EPIC
Twitter feeds: @bouldercounty @boulderrescue @epiccolorado
INCIWEB Four Mile Canyon Fire - regular updates and links to other resources
Boulder Fire Map - A map of closures, known structure fires, and evacuations (see below)
Boulder County Live Scanner Feeds and Incident Updates - listen live to police and fire radio traffic
ESRI Social Media Map including photos
Local news sites: 9NewsCBS4KDVRHuffington Post Denver, 7News Fire Page
Google News updates for the Boulder fire
NWS Denver Map showing fire borders
Wildfire Today Site with detailed analysis and maps
NIFC National Fire News - only updated periodically but has detailed, official information
WILDCAD - Choose a Colorado site to get dispatch updates

Help for those affected
Sparkplace Forum - dedicated to helping those affected by the four mile canyon fire
FourMileFireHelp - forum for those affected with losing home, animals, food, etc. In particular this site has a list of people offering accommodation for those who have lost homes or been displaced
Boulder County victim assistance center: 3842 N. Broadway Tel (303) 441-3560
Red Cross emergency shelter: YMCA, 2850 Mapleton Ave

CIMSS Satellite Blog with a discussion of the infrared satellite images from Sep 6 onwards
Boulder weather forecast products and warnings
Flickr Blog - some amazing pictures of the fire

View #boulderfire in a larger map

Survivalism and Emergency Management

I have never really been into the whole "survivalism" thing. In Y2K I didn't even buy one extra can of baked beans. I don't think there is a particularly high chance the government is about to collapse or impose martial law, and the world probably won't end in 2012. However, recently I have been looking at some of the "survival" forums out there, in particular Prepared Society and SurvivalistBoards, and have realized that in these sites there is a wealth of expertise in preparedness for long-term catastrophes: not just a 3-day ready pack, put people on there are thinking about how to make it for months and years. In emergency management we tend to discount people with an interest in survivalism as paranoid or fringe, which may be true, but this has made them think a lot about these issues. If we do have a major, long-term catastrophe (e.g. the protracted power outage that I discussed previously) it's these people who will make it if anyone does. Conversely, I think emergency management has something to offer the survivalism community: rational hazard analysis and planning (see my previous post on personal hazard planning). Combining these allows one to make rational judgements about what kinds of events really are most likely put us in a "SHTF" situation (to use some survivalism lingo) and which are unlikely enough to be for all intents and purposes zero-probability. From an emergency management perspective, it would be interesting to take some of this expertise (self-sufficiency, etc) and think about how they could apply on a community level rather than just a personal level.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A last hype for Hurricane Earl

So CNN is leading with the headline "Earl expected to cause 'destructive waves'". So what does this mean? We've been lulled into a false sense of security and it's suddenly strengthening? There is some kind of ersatz tsunami coming to the East coast? We need to evacuate now? Well no, if you read the story it really means that Earl is such a bust that "destructive waves" is all the hype that is left. The quote seemingly came from the state emergency management agency, along the lines of there could be a storm surge as it passes through.

All of this just doesn't help with the problem I previously discussed about having false positives for hurricanes. If we are to avoid another Katrina, we really need to differentiate the truly catastrophic hurricane from the "possibly bad" ones. This is a scientific problem but also a problem of information dissemination by officials.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Preparing for the big power outage

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you'll know that one of my top concerns is the risk of a widespread, long term (over a week) power outage. Emergency hazard planning is all about looking at the potential impact and probability of a hazard, and then how this is mitigated by steps that have been put in place. It doesn't take much thought to realize that the impact of a widespread prolonged power outage is absolutely huge: no water, food chain breaks down, law and order break down, no heating or air conditioning, communications fail, no health care, no sanitation, for starters. Most people don't realize that most critical services (hospitals, etc) only have enough generator fuel for a few days.

So we comfort ourselves that this could never happen (i.e. the probability is low). However, a in recent NAS report called Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts scientists predict that a solar storm of similar magnitude to one that hit in 1859 could knock out our power grid for 10 years (yes, that's 10 years... how we would even recover from that isn't discussed). Further, many articles recently have exposed the vulnerability of the SCADA systems in the grid to hacker attack - it would be almost trivial for an experienced, government funded hacker to bring down at least a portion of the grid through a virus or trojan horse. We don't know what the probability is of these things happening, but it's certainly high enough to warrant concern. Yet hardly anyone talks about it in Emergency Management circles. I was therefore delighted to find that  Mitigation Journal recently brought this issue up in their article and video podcast (I'm looking forward to their follow ups on this).

What can we do to mitigate this risk? On a personal level, there are options, albeit expensive and time-consuming ones (solar panels, long-term food supplies, planting our own gardens, etc). Keeping a full tank of gas and some cash on hand will help in the short term. For a community there are more options - encouraging allotments and community gardens; putting solar power capabilities in critical functions; keeping large supplies of fuel on hand; having backup communications (it is interesting that in a prolonged power outage the only viable long-range communications will probably be on shortwave). But we need some creative thought from many people on this!

The Hurricane Watch Net: Live Streaming Audio during Hurricanes

An excellent and little known resource for finding out pertinent, current information during Hurricanes is the Hurricane Watch Net (HWN). This is a quasi-official organization of amateur radio operators that mobilize during hurricanes to provide up-to-the-minute information on the "on the ground" effects of hurricanes to the National Hurricane Center during hurricane events. Information is passed over shortwave radio on 14.325 MHz. so if you have a shortwave radio and are in the vicinity you can tune in. Even more useful for the rest of us, the audio from this frequency is streamed over the internet on Voipwx.net during net activations. with the MP3 stream URL of http://live.wx5fwd.net/voipwx.mp3 (you can find other format streams at http://live.wx5fwd.net/). There can be long periods of quiet, so it's good to just leave running in the background. For more hurricane tracking tools, see the resources page.

Choosing the right radio scanner

A radio scanner is useful in all kinds of circumstances, but can be a critical information resource in a time of disaster as you are getting the information "from the source". However, there are many different radio systems and you have to choose the right scanner for your area and the kind of information you want to receive.

The first thing is to determine the legality of using a scanner in your area. Some countries outright ban listening to public safety radios with a scanner. Some U.S. states prohibit, for example, using a scanner in a car. Some allow it if you are an amateur radio operator. Checkout the online guide to state scanner laws as a start.

Next, make sure you really need a scanner. An increasing number of people are making scanner feeds available online, meaning you can listen in with just an internet-connected computer. There are even iPhone and mobile applications that let you listen to these feeds on your mobile device (such as EmergencyRadio). Check out one of the most popular feed sites for the U.S. on the RadioReference Audio Feeds page. If you do decide to go for a scanner, decide if you need a mobile scanner (fits in your car) or a handheld one. For most purposes, a handheld will be the most flexible

Next, check out the radio frequencies for your local county and area on RadioReference.  If the agencies you want to monitor use VHF or UHF frequencies (listed as 15x.xxx or 45x.xxx for instance), you can use a cheaper scanner such as the Uniden BC72XLT Handheld Scanner (Black) available for about $80. Many states are building statewide digital trunked systems (rather like cellphone networks but for two-way radios). If your agencies use a digital trunked system, you are going to need a more expensive scanner such as the Uniden BCD396XT, the Uniden BCD996XT, or the GRE PSR500  all of which cost around $500. These will generally be able to listen to all kinds of system (VHF, UHF, trunked, analog, digital) with the exception of encrypted radio traffic. Also check out a new kind of scanner: the Uniden HomePatrol-1.

Finally, program the frequencies into your scanner. With most scanners you can either program them by hand (using the keypad on the radio) or using a computer (sometimes you have to pay extra for the cable). Either way, it can be a bit tricky, so always search the web for hints on programming your particular scanner. Sometimes there are free or cheap software programs available on the web which are easier to use than the software provided by the scanner manufacturer.

A weather radio that really does what you want it to

We are all exhorted to buy an all hazards weather radio to keep us safe, but the truth is most of the time these usually get left switched off, mainly because they once woke us at 3am for a river flood warning or some such. The key to making weather radios work for you is buying the right weather radio. Specifically, you need one that can BOTH do SAME (so you can set it to only give alerts for your county) and lets you customize which alerts you want to get an alarm for. In my experience by far the best radio and the only one which has really worked for me is the Midland WR300 (left). I have one in our bedroom set to ONLY go off for tornado warnings and ONLY in our county. It works beautifully - we only get woken up if something really serious is happening (depending on your comfort level you may wish to be woken for severe thunderstorms, etc). Even the alerts you don't have alarms for will still appear on the display. I then use an email weather service (from Weather Underground) for alerts of lesser importance.