“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.
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?
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 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 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.
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.”