Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 3, 2014

High-tech, low-tech, and no tech: communication strategies during blackouts

Filed under: Disaster — by Christopher Bellavita on June 3, 2014

“High-tech, Low-tech, and No tech: Communication Strategies During Blackouts” is the title of a homeland security master’s thesis I’ve been meaning to write about here.

It was written by Diana Sun Solymossy in late 2013, and is available at this link: http://calhoun.nps.edu/public/bitstream/handle/10945/39020/13Dec_Sun_Solymossy_Diana.pdf?sequence=1

Here’s a synopsis of her research.  I’ve also posted a video of Diana talking about her research.

The Problem:

Communicating important information to the public during disasters is a core objective for emergency managers. But how can emergency managers communicate with their community when plugged-in forms of communication are not available to a large number of people?

The Context:

Power outages frequently occur, and often accompany major crises, particularly natural disasters such as severe weather events. Thus, during crises, communications are often severely hampered – just when emergency managers have the greatest need to communicate with the community.

Despite the preponderance of power outages, coupled with this important communications need, a review of the literature revealed few existing recommendations on what tactics could help emergency managers communicate with the public when the lights go out.

In fact, a number of reports concluded that “something else” would be needed when the power goes out, but few, if any, went on to suggest what that “something” might be.

The Data:

[The research looked at what] specific solutions have successfully been used to communicate critical information to the public during emergencies involving major blackouts.

This … project reviewed and analyzed three crises that involved major blackouts and subsequent communications problems:

1. Multi-state blackout, northeast U.S., 2003

2.  Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast, U.S., 2005

3. Triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear), Japan, 2011

The Findings:

[The research identified] a three-tiered framework [for communicating during disasters], consisting of “high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech” communications strategies.

High-tech — Emergency managers can leverage the high usage of mobile devices and exploit it for emergency communications purposes. Assuming emergency managers have access to backup generators, they can send out messages via social media channels. Governments in the disaster-affected areas of Japan’s triple disaster now consider social networks to be a valuable communications tool in disasters.

Low-tech — It was clear across the three cases that, whatever the situation, what people needed most was extremely localized information. Across the cases, hyper-local community radio stations were among the top sources of extremely local information that people needed most. In addition, as conditions improved, hyper-local radio transitioned to sources of support and comfort, thus serving as vital lifelines to connect communities.

No-tech — When all else fails, local governments must be prepared to go backward and use old-fashioned methods to reach people with information. In all three cases, people used their ingenuity to figure out ways to get information out, including handwritten posters, old-school flyers, and bullhorns. The focus should be on getting information to the places where people naturally gather following disasters, e.g., corner stores, evacuation centers, gas stations.

The Conclusions:

None of these methods is revolutionary, so what is new here?

What is new is the proposal that emergency managers in local jurisdictions proactively prepare for the worst scenarios, by making preparations for communicating with their public, via the “high-tech, low-tech, no-tech” combination.

Key elements for success include:

– Focusing on the hyper-local information that people need.

– Flexibility to quickly adapt and use those tools and channels that are up and working.

– Nurturing and encouraging private efforts to help in response and relief efforts.

– Preparing for the worst.

– Not relying on a “techno-fix.”


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Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 4, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

A point of view worth reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s in one of his books Blink.

During the Millennium Challenge exercise in 2002 the “red” team or force that was led by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper understood the necessity for rudimentary or low tech communication.

Van Riper adopted an asymmetric strategy, in particular, using “old” methods to evade “Blue’s” sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers and couriers to issue orders to front-line troops and World War II signal lamps to launch airplanes without radio communications.

It was so successful in interrupting the war game that the exercise was restarted after Van Riper decimated the US fleet. It was also distributed operation with small nodes or cells that information was passed to and through to his red cell team.

Another point of view with regard to “old” and methodology is the monologue by Russell Crowe’s character Ed Hoffman in Body of Lies.

“Our enemy has realized that they are fighting guys from the future. Now, ahem, it is as brilliant as it is infuriating. If you live like it’s the past, and you behave like it’s the past then guys from the future find it very hard to see you. If you throw away your cell phone, shut down your e-mail pass all your instructions face-to-face, hand-to-hand turn your back on technology and just disappear into the crowd No flags. No uniforms.”

There have also been several excellent articles about adaptation and the “enemy” going “backwards” to adapt and undermine sophistication and technology. Old works, if anyone knows how to do it. “Old” is also a dying and transitioning technology from obsolescence to extinction.

Moving back to the late 19th century in New York one sees an even more rudimentary communication device; the chalk board. Newspapers would list casualties and other information on large chalk boards installed on the front of buildings. It was effective.

The argument that should be happening in my opinion is the potential downside of over reliance on technology, the technology fetish, and the diminution of elementary skills.

What I mean by that is less and less people have a necessity to tinker, repair, and maintain their machines, devices, and tools. In a throw out society and we’ve been conditioned to replace instead of repair. Over time this behavior or unintended consequence dissipates the accrued body of knowledge. That body of previous “know how “diminishes and potentially disappears.

The over reliance on and the Achilles heel of routinized technology is the expectation of its availability. If and when it fails it will have direct impact and consequence on decisions, guidance, and impact everything from logistics to security. The failure will mitigate any advantage of the perceived gain of real time comms. It will also impact speed and impact leadership style.

One of the outcrops of rapid, real time, ubiquitous communication is the increase of “supervision” from higher headquarters. The pejorative is micromanagement, but a culture of waiting and requiring decisions from above inhibit risk taking and problem solving, in my opinion. This behavior therefore creates a culture of inhibition and delay. There is also a potential paralysis that comes with this style techno-centric leadership.

With regard to communication; if our goal is ubiquitous redundancy than we must read, practice, and have in our redundancy portfolio a host of skills and knowledge sets that let us exercise semaphore, runner, terrestrial, and other forms of communication.

Whether an EMP, large and extended atmospheric condition, or other unexplained phenomena of interruption it would behoove us to reinvigorate previous and bygone technologies in order to exercise some semblance of command as there will be little if any control.

Just some thoughts to amplify the comments and research above.

Comment by Mike

June 4, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

Flaws in the thinking:
>High-tech — Emergency managers can leverage
>the high usage of mobile devices and exploit
>it for emergency communications purposes.
>Assuming emergency managers have access
>to backup generators, they can send out
>messages via social media channels.

IDIOTS. You would need operating
equipment (and generators) along
THE ENTIRE PATH from the senders
to the receivers. NOT GOING TO
HAPPEN. Nothing has been ruggedized.
Almost nothing has redundancy built
in. One faliure anywhere in the
stream of information leaves the
receivers with no message.

Low-tech — … Across the cases,
>hyper-local community radio
>stations were among the top
>sources of extremely
>local information that people
>needed most.

and FM stations are 99% owned
by ntionwide conglomerates. Many
programs are sourced from one
location with local commercials
dropped in place by automated
Corporate management has been
shedding tech staff for two
decades to improve the stockholder
returns. Locally we have about
6 to 10 stations per Chief
Engineer and NO techs. Who
is going to get the stations
running again during or after a
disaster? Secretaries? Bean

>No-tech — …
>The focus should be on getting
>information to the places where
>people naturally gather following
>disasters, e.g., corner stores,
>evacuation centers, gas stations.

And Wal-Marts. During Katrina the
Wal-Mart corp did more than FEMA,
Red Cross and everyone else combined.

I’d concentrate and gettign the
local AM and FM stations reggedized
able to broadcast locally sourced
content (again), and have local
engineering staff readily
available – starting with introducing
legislation allowing them to hire
retirees without impacting the
retiress income in any way (in some
cases the retirement laws and the
social secuurity laws will cut off
100% of their earnings… if they
have ANY local income).

And offer CERT classes and Red Cross
First Aid courses for free. Both are
a big help to the individual public
before , during and after a disaster.

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