One of the most difficult things for families and homeowners’ associations during a major fire or other disaster is to effectively communicate both among themselves and with outside sources to obtain information about the event and preparations that may be necessary. We are all supposed to have an evacuation plan, supplies, water and food for a few days, and other necessities, but many people rely on their cell phones for communications during a disaster.
This may not be enough! During major incidents, the number of people trying to make calls overloads cell systems. Sometimes texting works when voice calls cannot get through, but if there are power outages, or a major fire or earthquake, cell phones may not be the best answer. There are two issues here. The first is how to get information about what is happening and what you need to do, and the second, also vital, is how to communicate among your family or group.
In answer to the first question, you can tune into any of the local broadband AM or FM stations. Most of them have satellite phones that connect them directly with Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management. Even if telephone service is not available, the stations will receive updates from the county Emergency Operations Center on a timely basis. You should sign up now for Nixle, the free county alerting system. Click here to enroll. This system will send you text and/or email updates during emergencies. During the White Fire, the county sent out updates as needed.
You should also sign up for the reverse notification calls through the 9-1-1 system, a service offered by the county and run by the Sheriff’s Department. Click here to register. The cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta also have sites for information, (Click here for Santa Barbara’s or click here for Goleta’s.) as do many of the other cities in the county.
To further prepare for an emergency, you should have some form of communications other than cell service available to you. Simple Family Radio Service (FRS) radios are readily available at Radio Shack, Best Buy and online. They are inexpensive and can operate on AA batteries or some come with rechargeable batteries. You can select a channel to use and set a tone so you don’t hear other users, and the range of these devices is about ½ to 1 mile or further outdoors. These are handy even for family activities such as hiking or taking trips. They should be set up and then tested once a month to make sure they are working properly.
Beyond that there are several communications programs available for homeowners associations. One such program is run by Michael Ditmore of Novim, a nonprofit association that is working with several homeowners associations in the Montecito area. In some cases, HOA leaders have a satellite phone installed in their houses and then have either FRS or other two-way radios to communicate among homeowners.
Another service is being offered by the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club (SBARC). This group has installed a radio relay system that will reach most of Santa Barbara city, Montecito, Carpentaria and Goleta areas. The use of this system is free, however it does require an FCC license, which is available for $80 for a 10-year period and there is no exam or test required.
The SBARC system is designed so that key HOA members can talk via the radio relay to each other and also directly to the county Emergency Operations Center when it is operational. The HOA members can then communicate, using the same radio, with other HOA members who are equipped with FRS radios. Both of these services are offered free to the public and are available via either Novim or SBARC. SBARC also offers amateur radio licensing classes for a small charge to cover materials. Amateur radio is a great way to communicate with others locally, throughout California, across the country and around the world.
Fire, police and EMS personnel have their own radio channels they use during normal as well as emergency situations. They rely on their systems 24/7, and if you ask any of them they will tell you that being able to communicate in times of a disaster is the key to their ability to get a handle on the situation and get things back under control.
Today, many people take their cell phones for granted, but during a major disaster, cellular systems may be out of service or overloaded. If you live or work in fire-prone areas or are concerned, as you should be, about earthquakes, then you should investigate all of these alternate communications options. Once you decide to procure one or more of these systems, don’t simply plug it in and forget it. Use whatever alternate communications system you have chosen once a month. If you are using radios with rechargeable batteries, turn them on, use them, and let the batteries run down every few months to keep them in top shape.
Make sure you have a battery-operated AM/FM radio and all of the other essentials you will need to survive for a few days. Decide ahead of time on a family meeting place, and above all, don’t rely on only your cell phone for communications. Murphy loves disasters and when you need to communicate the most you will find that you may not be able to use your cell phone. This past week of fires and an earthquake should spur us all on to making sure that if we were not prepared before, we are now.
— Andrew Seybold is vice president of external affairs for the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club. The opinions expressed are his own.