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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Preparing for an earthquake

Written by  John Glenn, Enterprise Risk Management Practitioner March 14, 2011

A planner acquaintance was told that a severe earthquake was imminent in his area.
What, he asked, would I do in his situation?

This is a person who once casually emailed 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 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.

An aside: I, for one, think New York City's Emergency Management proved its worth on September 11. Its headquarters destroyed, it moved to a secondary location and did just about everything right.

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

But, I have come to believe, earthquakes are earthquakes and what holds for one holds for another, "more or less."

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.

Where my friend sits, 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.

But, if you'll go back a few paragraphs, my friend's quake-to-be will be "centered high in the mountains." Too high for the typical commercial helicopter; military machines will be needed to haul loads to high-altitude bases. Even if there were airports for Short Take Off (and) Landing [STOL] aircraft, the likelihood of damage to the fields would be too great to make STOL craft a reliable option. Unlike California, his quake's center is completely land-locked; sea access is not an option.

In the wintertime, many of the animal trails that serve as roads are snowed shut.

Translation: even if helicopters can deliver the goods, the goods can't be delivered.

Unless someone brings in snowmobiles with the other resources. Are they suitable? We have to ask someone else for that information. (Proof again that plans cannot be created in a vacuum.)

All this flying in of supplies and snowmobiling them from the helicopter landing area takes time; in some cases, it may take too great a 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.)
The difference between one location and another 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 understand!

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.

Television may be too "high tech" to be an effective emergency media. Gone are the days when each television was equipped with "rabbit ears" or an outside antenna; today's viewer more often depends upon cable - which can be broken - or dish antennas - which can be turned to a useless angle.

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 [SME]; my knowledge of commercial [AM, FM] radio is limited.)

Short wave (HF) frequencies travel great distances, but receiver antennas must be correctly positioned for maximum reception.

While short wave travels long distances and may be the ideal wavelength to convey information into the hinterland, it normally is not suitable for air/ground communication. This usually is carried on low-power UHF transceivers.

Unlike HF transceivers, UHF sets are more "user friendly" and should be relatively easy to learn to use.

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.

The answer is to provide at least a limited number of solar-powered transceivers or, alternatively, solar battery chargers. (I prefer the former for fewer parts to lose or break.)

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, we - humanity - 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 US never "officially" speaks to Cuba, yet some information travels between the two countries on an on-going basis.

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.

Since we usually have some warning that a quake (or storm) will strike, we can, and should, arrange relief efforts before the event. Who will do what; what nation will supply what resources. Having 500,000 tents for 50,000 people is about as beneficial as delivering Spam (R) to Israel - or Afghanistan, for that matter. 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 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.