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Winter Journal

Volume 27, Issue 1

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Preparing for an earthquake

A planner acquaintance was advised that a severe earthquake was imminent in his area. While the country in which he was working borders the Arabian Sea, the quake threat was well inland, high in a mountainous region. The threat of a tsunami was not considered.

What, he asked, would I do in his situation?

This is a person who once casually e-mailed that his IT facility was in the path of a rocket battle, so I have the utmost respect for his survival skills.

I rattled off the standard IT preparedness ("business continuity") actions: make certain to back up regularly and ship the backups out of the area, look for alternate sites while his site is restored, be prepared to surrender his equipment for humanitarian use (tracking displaced persons, resources, aid workers, etc.), and "hope for the best."

Then I started to think beyond my fellow planner's data center.

From "business continuity" to "emergency management."

The first thing I realized is that emergency management is very much like business continuity, only on a grand scale.

The earthquake threat facing my acquaintance is centered high in the mountains; high in some very high mountains.

But, I have once believed, earthquakes are earthquakes and what holds for one holds for another, "more or less." The recent quake-plus-tsunami-plus-power plant breach in Japan proved otherwise. Business continuity is, if nothing else, a continuing education.

For example, one of the main concerns for my friend is transportation, as in "evacuate the injured and bring in aid workers."

While his problem is not unique, it is unusual.

Transportation

Earthquakes usually take their toll on the transportation infrastructure - roads, railways, airports, ship ports.

My friend is concerned about an area where the transportation infrastructure is minimal; sometimes nothing more than an animal path.

In Southern California, lack of highways would be an inconvenience overcome by delivering resources from the Pacific or bringing them in via helicopter.

If you go back a few paragraphs, my friend's quake-to-be will be "centered high in the mountains." It would be too high for the typical commercial helicopter; military craft will be needed to haul loads to high-altitude bases. Even if there were airports for short take-off and landing aircraft, the likelihood of damage to the fields would be too great to make that a reliable option.

In the wintertime, many of the animal trails that serve as roads are snowed shut, so landing sites would have to be near the people who needed assistance.

All this flying in of supplies takes time. In some cases, it may take too much time.

We, acting as emergency management planners, must come up with options.

Cache Please

Whether Southern California or the high Himalayas, it makes good sense to cache emergency supplies in areas likely to be inaccessible. (The mutual problem is security.)

One difference between my friend's site and California is population movement.

Southern California, while its population fluctuates, always has a core community.

Other places have mobile populations; populations that follow the food supply (e.g. goats, reindeer, fish).

When the population is static, caching supplies -- medical, food, shelter amenities (cots, blankets, portable chemical toilets) -- is relatively a "no brainer." The "California problem" is that each site must accommodate more than the surrounding population so that neighboring populations unable to get to their caches can survive elsewhere.

Two problems when populations migrate: caches must be established along known routes, and security typically is sacrificed (who can spare the manpower to station someone at each site?).

In the high mountains, the problem is a combination of both California and migration populations.

The mountain residents typically move with their livestock, but settle in semi-fixed communities for a season.

In order to protect these people, caches must be established along the routes taken by the migrants, keeping in mind (a) that the earthquake can happen at any time and (b) the community's demographics (e.g. ages, diet).

Avoiding a 'Got'cha'

Authorities setting up food caches must keep in mind the population's dietary restrictions (if any) and language limitations. The U.S. dropped hundreds of food packets to the Afghans, all carefully packed with food observant Muslims can eat, but labeled in English, a language most Afghans cannot comprehend.

Multiple helicopter landing areas need to be identified well before the event.

Finally, the people -- in Southern California and in the high Himalayas -- need to know what to do and where to go when the quake strikes.

Educating the people may prove the hardest part of the pre-quake activities. In Southern California, this means a multi-ethnic effort; this may be easier in the Himalayas, but the sensitivities of the populations must be respected if any effort is to succeed.

Which brings up the next critical component.

Communication

Getting the word to the populations that need aid resources is relatively easy in Southern California; instructions can be broadcast from relatively distant locations on local frequencies (assuming frequency and power restrictions are waived). Anyone who ever listened to the late Wolfman Jack on XOXO (most of young America in the 1960s) knows the power of radio.

In densely populated areas, standard radios should prove satisfactory.

In remote, isolated areas, the standard signal may be insufficient. (This is where this planner turns to a communications subject matter expert. My knowledge of commercial radio is limited.)

There is a flip side to the radio "coin." The people who will need assistance need to communicate with emergency management personnel to receive information and to relate their location and requirements (e.g., medical aid). This means that two-way radios are required. Since those in need of assistance probably are not trained radio operators, any two-way radio needs to be easy to use with easy to comprehend instructions.

The problem with all radio equipment is power.

Electricity may be non-existent. Even if there was power before the quake, the event might disrupt it. Batteries have a limited shelf life, and every reader knows how easy it is for an appliance to be accidentally turned on - when the power is needed, it is not there.

There are several alternative to AC and battery power, including solar-powered radios, solar-powered battery chargers, and external or integrated hand-crank generators. Which alternative is best depends on a number of considerations including location (is there sufficient sunshine) and user capabilities (a integrated hand-crank generator is about as simple as it gets).

No matter how efficient the communications tools, if the emergency management people fail to speak the listeners' language, all the effort is wasted. Remember the food package with English instructions dropped to Afghans who don't know English from Latin?

While there are other concerns, one major one my friend may face that his counterpart in the US won't is an abundance of aid offers from foreign nations.

Help isn't always helpful

To our credit, when disaster strikes, humans usually put aside our political and religious differences to help our neighbor. About the only time the Greeks and Turks talk to each other is when they come to each other's aid after a disaster.

The problem is not finding nations to help the relief effort, it is managing the various contingents.

The emergency management operation must assign personnel to the most appropriate effort, and hope the volunteer is willing to take the assignment.

Help must be coordinated; if it can be organized before the event, so much the better. In emergency management, the term is "mutual aid agreement."

Beyond organizing the aid, the emergency management organization must keep track of the material from the time it arrives until it is put into the hands of those who need it.

It is an unfortunate fact that in many cases some aid is siphoned off by thieves and murderers; if the material can be closely tracked, the probability that it will reach the intended destination is increased.

IT still is critical

"I guess," my friend opined, "my IT operation isn't so important after all."

Not true, I replied.

It may not be needed in its current role, but it can be used for a number of humanitarian functions. Even if the operation his data center supports shuts down completely, the data center -- if it can be kept operational -- can be a major asset in getting aid to the people who need it.

Now, back to business continuity and protecting the data center.