Finding out what’s going on in an emergency can be complicated. Figuring out what to believe is even more so.
I’ve been thinking about that this week because the gas line explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley (north of Boston) and the communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover were right near me. (I’ve spent a lot of time in the latter two places earlier in my life, and I have friends living in one of those towns. I live closer to Boston.)
If you’re in the middle of a crisis, and you need information, here’s the key things you need to know (there’s explanation further down the page.)
1) Texts (and sometimes emails) get through when other kinds of information won’t. Try those if you’re having problems with other options.
Text is tiny, in computer terms. Images, webpages, voice connections, all take up a lot more data.
2) Figure out who will be in charge of the problem.
Look at their sites and social media accounts for information and pointers. If it’s a natural disaster, that might mean state and federal emergency management. If the problem is in a town or city, look for the local government accounts and pages. You may want to check the relevant police departments.
3) Pick a couple of reliable sources for information.
Good choices include major local news stations (If you don’t know what to pick I recommend the local public radio station in the US.) Big main station, though, somewhere that’s got enough local staff to send people out on the scene and do deeper investigation.
You may also want to check out official sources like the town or city government page, the town or city Twitter feed or other social media pages, and relevant police departments or emergency management resources.
4) See if you can get a friend who’s in a different physical location to help with information.
They’ll have access to more resources, and less trouble getting them to load (or they can more easily look for options.)
5) Be conscious of battery and signal issues.
Limit use if you’re not sure how you’re going to recharge. Get yourself somewhere safe, let people know you’re safe, and then use it only for critical information.
Things you can do before a crisis hits:
1) Have a go bag.
There are lots of great resources out there for what to pack, so let me address the information front. Consider:
- A battery or method of recharging electronic devices. Charging plugs are also a great idea. (If you have one for travel, have it live in your go bag when you’re not using it for that.)
- Key information (phone numbers, addresses, basic directions) in case you can’t use your devices. Include a couple of people not in your local area who are likely to pick up or answer.
- Index cards or a notebook (and a pen) for making notes about what you need, what’s happening, or information you’re told.
- If you might need to evacuate, add some form of identification. If you don’t want to bring a passport or birth certificate, consider high quality photocopies.
2) Know where pet carriers and related equipment are.
Some evacuation shelters will take pets, other places will make arrangements for animal shelters or vets to help. Whatever the solution, if you need to get your pet out, you need a way to do that safely. That might mean a carrier, a sturdy leash and harness, or something else. Make sure to have some pet food you can pack and rotate in your go bag or with the carrier.
3) Think about places you could go.
If there’s a hurricane or a blizzard, your entire area is probably going to have problems – in that case you either need to make a significant evacuation, or you need to stay put. (Depending on the situation.)
But in other cases, getting a town or two away may be enough. Do you have friends nearby you could stay with in a pinch? Or who would at least let you regroup there and figure out the next options? Talk to people, make a note, so that if there’s a situation, you don’t have to decide who you call first.
4) Identify good sources of news in advance. Write them down if you need to.
You don’t need to listen to the news every day, or watch it, but have a sense of what the most reliable and helpful stations are that you can get easily. That way, if there’s an issue, you have a place to start.
I suggest the local public radio or TV stations (in Boston, these are WGBH and WBUR) because they tend to be right on top of regional news, but have the resources of a national news organization if it’s a really big crisis (including journalists who focus on particular areas).
Another good option is the local paper of record: the main paper for a region, where legal notices have to be posted.
5) Know how to use key features of your technology.
Even if you don’t text or email regularly from your phone, know where your text app is, or your email app.
When signal strength is low, or bandwidth is in high demand, plain text messages will get through when webpages, voice, or video might not. Give yourself options.
6) Ask friends or family in other parts of the country to be a point of contact.
Do you have a friend who lives across the country? Would they be willing to help with information (or be a contact point) for a regional emergency? Often, people well outside the immediate area will have a much easier time getting information and maintaining connectivity. If you check in them, and others in your family check in there, they can pass along information.
Why does this matter? In some kinds of emergencies, telecommunications tools may go down. Cell towers might be destroyed, local routing equipment might fail. Even if the physical technology is in one piece, lots of people trying to make calls or find information can flood the connection and make it hard to get messages through. A friend who can do more complex web searches or figure out the best sources of information can be priceless.
During a crisis
1) Get somewhere safe.
2) Figure out what’s going on.
Check those sources I talked about: major news stations in your area, local police or fire departments, or emergency management.
At the moment, Twitter is often the best source for quick urgent messages (check local police departments, fire departments, or town/city official accounts), but check city or town government pages. Facebook and many websites may be very sluggish to respond (lots of images and other higher-size content), and many of them have lousy search tools.
If you need to use a site that isn’t loading for you, see if you can get to a mobile version.
3) Get in touch with a friend or friends outside the area.
Let them know you’re okay, ask if they can help you get the info you need.
4) Once you have more information, figure out what your next steps are.
This is going to depend a whole lot on the specific situation, so I can’t suggest practical details. However, you may want to consider:
- Can you recharge your phone? If not, turn it off or put it in low-power mode and turn off all but the most essential functions. Check once an hour, or every two hours, then stop using it again.
- Do you urgently need medications or medical help (or will you, if the crisis continues for any length of time?) That’s a good time to let emergency services know about the specifics if that’s possible.
- Do you have pets who need care? Reach out to get help for them.
At this point, you can focus your research and resources on figuring out the specific stuff you need, and who can help you with that. If you’re not sure (and you’re able to reach one), local libraries will likely be glad to help you figure out the good information options and help you connect with services.