Saturday, March 23, 2013

The medium and the message

For a long time I have been thinking about alerts and warnings, and the problems associated with their use in severe weather, winter storms, homeland security, and so on. These are well documented - the fact that there is not a specific action associated with warnings, their meaning is occluded, people ignore them because of too many false alarms, confuse watches, warnings, and advisories, and so on.

I think the basic problem is that a status (warning, watch, alert, orange, red, advisory, whatever) is not a message - it is a medium. It is a vehicle to deliver information, versus the information itself. So our focus should be on getting the information to people, rather than getting the vehicle to people. A "winter storm warning" or a "tornado warning" has very little information content; the fact that there could be 9 inches of snow between 9am and 3pm, or that there is a tornado on the ground just entering the west of the county is information. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to respond in certain ways to the vehicles - "when there is a tornado warning, take cover!" rather than trying to persuade them to respond in certain ways to particular kinds of information - "if you get information that there is a tornado on the ground, heading your way..."

The reason I think this is important now is social media. With social media, we have the capacity to choose to deliver formal vehicles, or actual information. I believe actual information, presented informally, is usually more - well, informative. Compare the following tweets:
A tornado warning has been issued for Boobah County! Take Cover Now!
A winter storm watch is in effect for Foo County!
Spotters have reported tornado 25 miles west of Nowheresville, moving east - take cover now if in path!
We could get hit by a late snowstorm tomorrow - up to 12 inches starting around noon, lasting till 7pm. Still lots of uncertainty in prediction though.
See what I mean? So a warning, alert, advisory, or whatever, is a trigger to put some information out on Twitter or Facebook or by text message - but think about putting out the actual information, rather than simply transmitting the trigger.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In defense of the dumb phone

Until January of this year, I was an avid iPhone user, but then my iPhone 4 died, after becoming terminally ill six months earlier after a water splash accident. Rather than replace it immediately, I decided to experiment with using a "dumb phone" for a while to see how it went. I decided to go for a Samsung Factor (left) on the Boost network, costing a total of $9.99 for the phone, then $10 every 3 months for a pay-as-you-go top-up to keep my account active. I was surprised by how much I liked the phone - it is small, light, and critically importantly the battery will last up to a week without a charge - my iPhone battery was down to near zero at the end of each day. In addition, for use in emergencies the physical dial pad is much more intuitive than trying to find a keypad on a smartphone to dial 911. I have since supplemented my phone with an android Samsung Transform Ultra smartphone that I picked up on clearance, do not have service for, but which works beautifully on any WiFi network. It gives me all the regular smartphone functionality including making calls with Talkatone and a Google Voice number (although I wouldn't rely on this in an emergency). The final piece of the puzzle is a Virgin Mobile Mifi 2000 that I picked up again on clearance for $20, and which gives me a flexible mobile wifi hotspot for $5/day any time I need it on the go.

But the real lesson in all of this is that for less than $50 a year and an initial outlay of $10, you can own a phone that in an emergency situation, or an ongoing power outage, will let you make calls, send texts, and dial 911 cleanly and simply. Even better, get one that works on a different network than your regular phone, to give you some redundancy.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Radio communications in widespread disasters

Below are some notes on radio communications in "SHTF" style disasters for a new class I am running on informatics in disasters and emergency response. I'm posting it here both in case it's useful for others, and also to solicit comments and feedback, and anything that might be missing?


To receive local VHF, UHF and 800MHz frequencies directly, you will need a scanner. Many public safety entities are now on digital P25 networks, which means you need a more expensive digital scanner. Recommended scanners include the Uniden Home PatrolBCD396XTand BCD996XT, and the GRE PSR500. A much cheaper option, when the internet is working, is to use one of the online scanner feeds, especially those from Broadcastify. These feeds are also available through a variety of iPhone and Android apps, such as Scanner911. Some agencies are also making feeds available through walkie talkie apps such as Zello.

Most commercial medium and short wave radio stations broadcast using regular AM. However most of the government, NGO and amateur frequencies active in disasters use Single Side Band (SSB - USB or LSB). To receive all of these frequencies you will need a radio that is capable of receiving medium wave, and short wave SSB. One of the best is the Grundig Satellit 750

VHF, UHF and 800MHz local frequencies

You can find lots of information on active local emergency service VHF, UHF and 800MHz frequencies that will likely be active in disasters, on the RadioReference website. Note in particular that many counties have amateur radio users active on VHF and UHF in emergencies, operating under the ARES and RACES organizational frameworks. Many nationally used emergency and public safety interoperability frequencies are described in the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG). Another important source of information are theNOAA All Hazards radio frequencies. Weather alert radios monitor these frequencies for alert tones, or they can be monitored directly. Under normal circumstances, they broadcast weather forecasts, alerts and conditions, but they will also transmit a variety of general emergency alert messages. A list of frequencies used in your area and alert tone codes can be found on the NOAA All Hazards website
NOAA 1, 162.400
NOAA 2, 162.425
NOAA 3, 162.450
NOAA 4, 162.475
NOAA 5, 162.500
NOAA 6, 162.525
NOAA 7, 162.550

Medium Wave PEP Radio Stations

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.They must have a backup generator for 30 days on the air, along with various other stringent requirements, so in a widespread disaster situation they could be vital information sources if local infrastructure is down. Find your nearest Primary Entry Point Medium Wave radio stations on the PEP Map. For reference, the 33 PEP stations are:
KALL 700 Herriman UT (50,000 W day/1000 W night)
KBOI 670 Kuna ID (50,000 W)
KCBS 740 Novato CA (50,000 W)
KERR 750 Polson MT (50,000 day/1000 night) 
KFLT 830 Tucson AZ (50,000 day/1000 night)
KFQD 750 Anchorage AK (50,000 W)
KFWB 980 Los Angeles CA (5000 W)
KFYR 550 Meneken ND (5000 W)
KIRO 710 Vashon WA (50,000 W)
KKOB 770 Albuquerque NM (50,000 W)
KKOH 780 Reno NV (50,000 W)
KOA 850 Parker CO (50,000 W)
KTRH 740 Dayton TX (50,000 W)
KTWO 1030 Casper WY (50,000 W)
WABC 770 New York NY (50,000 W)
WBAP 820 Mansfield TX (50,000 W)
WBAL 1090 Baltimore MD (50,000 W)
WBZ 1030 Boston MA (50,000 W)
WCCO 830 Minneapolis/St Paul MN (50,000 W)
WCOS FM 97.5 Columbia SC (100,000 W)
WHAM 1180 Rochester NY (50,000 W)
WHB 810 Kansas City KS (50,000 day/5000 night)
WKAQ 580 Catano PR (10,000 W)
WLS 890 Chicago IL (50,000 W)
WLW 700 Cincinnati OH (50,000 W)
WMAC 940 Macon GA (50,000 day/10,000 night)
WQDR FM 94.7 Raleigh NC (100,000 W)
WRXL FM 102.1 Richmond VA (20,000 W)
WSM 650 Nashville TN (50,000 W)
WSTA 1340 St Thomas VI (1000 W)
WTAM 1100 Cleveland OH (50,000 W)
WWL 870 New Orleans LA (50,000 W)
WYGM 740 Clermont FL (50,000 W)

Short Wave Government, NGO and Amateur Stations

NIST time stations. NIST stations (our nearest is WWV in Colorado) broadcast 24 hours a day with a voice announcement of the time, on the minute, and "pips" for every second. They are a good way to test propagation in different bands, as well as seeing if the stations are "alive" in a very widespread disaster:
NIST WWV AM 2500, 5000, 10000, 15000, 20000
ARRL amateur radio emergency frequencies. The American Amateur Radio League (ARRL) runs emergency bulletins on the hour during widespread disaster events, from its W1AW station. At other times, general interest bulletins are broadcast daily at 02:45 UT (9.45pm Eastern Time).
ARRL 80M, 3990 LSB
ARRL 40M, 7290 LSB
ARRL 20M, 14290 USB
ARRL 17M, 18160 USB
ARRL 15M, 21390 USB
ARRL 10M, 28590 USB
The amateur radio band plan defines how parts of the shortwave spectrum assigned for amateur radio use can be used. The following ranges of frequencies can be used for voice conversations, and may be utilized in emergencies
80M BAND, 3600-4000 LSB
40M BAND, 7125-7300 LSB
20M BAND, 14150-14350 USB
17M BAND, 18110-18168 USB
15M BAND, 21200-21450 USB
10M BAND, 28300-29700 USB
FEMA. FEMA runs disaster nets in emergencies for use by state and regional emergency managers. The primary frequencies are:
SHARESSHARES is a loose network of critical organizations and government agencies to share information in a disaster. SHARES is tested every Wednesday at 16:00 UT (11am Eastern Time)
Other Frequencies. The following other shortwave frequencies are also often used in disasters: