Transcript of Get Ready Report Podcast, episode 27

Digital disaster preparedness

This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington, D.C. In today’s episode we speak with Amy Donahue, MLIS, AHIP, the User Education & Reference Librarian at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She offers tips on using technology to help you prepare for an emergency, as well as advice about getting your tech gear disaster-ready. Amy is interviewed by Michelle Holshue, RN.

Amy, you are a librarian. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do, and how can librarians help in disasters?

Sure. I’ll just start with a little bit of my background, how I got involved with disasters & disaster information. I was a National Library of Medicine (NLM) Fellow between the years 2008-2010. There I worked on a project with the NLM Disaster Information Management Research Center, so that’s how I got started. I’m now currently working on my Disaster Information Specialist Certification, which is a program with my professional organization.

I recently began my job at the medical college of Wisconsin, but just a few weeks ago I was working in a hospital as a hospital librarian. There I was involved with the hospital’s emergency preparedness committee, doing various things with the group there, and helping to start a community preparedness day event with various community partners. So my background covers a lot of the ways that librarians I think can be involved in disasters or in disaster information.

As reference librarians we are always available – whether it’s in a public library or a university – as resources to any users who come into the library looking for information. We can help people identify good resources for disaster information. We can help them find new sources if they don’t know where to start. And then we can also help work with community partners - since we’re involved in all kinds of information organization and connecting people with whatever it is they need – with starting programs around disaster information and getting everyone at the table. So those are a few of the ways that librarians can be involved.

That sounds like librarians can be very helpful in disasters! Before an emergency happens, what are some ways that people can use technology like computers, mobile phones, and Internet to help us prepare?

Yeah, technology is a great tool to take advantage of. A few ways that you can use technology to help prepare include: Scanning copies – you can use or scanner or you can even take pictures – scanning copies of important documents & save those online. There’s a couple tools out there to help you save things so you can access them later from any computer. One of the big ones that a lot of people use is called “Dropbox.” And you can just save your important documents there, and you can log in from any computer – it’s very secure – and access them after an emergency. But preparing them there beforehand can be very important.

Another way you can save electronic documents is just by having them on a thumb drive. If you put all of your important documents onto a thumb drive and just keep that in your emergency kit, then you know you have that small way of carrying them around with you if needed in case the originals are lost or destroyed.

Another way to use some of the technology that most people have in preparation for a disaster is to program what are called “ICE” emergency contacts into your cell phone. If you actually put in a contact as “ICE” – capital I-C-E, and that stands for “In Case of Emergency” – then whoever is with you, if you’re unable to speak for yourself, you’ll have people in your phone so that the responders will know who to contact. So that can be an important step before an emergency happens.

Another idea kindof in line with the important documents is to take pictures of your pets. A lot of people don’t really think about their pets before an emergency, but you don’t want to lose them – they’re an important part of your family. Taking pictures of your pets and having those on you – again, saved in Dropbox or on the thumb drive – can come in really handy in case you get separated from them.

You can also use the Internet to look up important phone numbers beforehand. You get online, and look up the numbers you might need for local and state resources. And then one good national website that you can go to before an emergency would be, which has been talked about before – a lot of people know it – but it’s a great place for looking up what should be in your kit and what you need to do to be prepared. So looking at all those kinds of resources before an emergency happens.

One other thing to be aware of that I just learned about recently is learning more about the Wireless Emergency Alerts. It’s a new national service going out over various cell phone carriers where if an emergency happens in your area, you will get a free text if your cell phone is what’s called “WEA compliant.” So if you just Google “wireless emergency alerts” you should actually find a little bit of information about it and get to the websites that will help you figure out if your phone will allow you to get those emergency alerts, in case an emergency is coming. I think those are several preparedness tips using technology.

Those are very helpful. Now, what about during an emergency - Do you have any tips for using technology during a natural disaster or a big storm?

Yeah, and I think Hurricane Sandy kindof brought some of these to the forefront – technology can help you carry our your emergency communication plan. If phone lines are busy or power is out, your cell phone, your mobile phone can be very useful. Often times people find that the cell phone towers get inundated with too many calls trying to go through, they can’t handle everything. So a good thing to know that texting is often times better than trying to get through with an actual call.
So during a disaster you might want to make sure that you have some texting capabilities in place.

And then there are some actual apps, if you have a smartphone, that can be quite helpful during an emergency. There is a Red Cross Hurricane app, for example, and OSHA’s Heat Tool is another example. So there are more than a couple apps out there that can actually help you track and know what’s going on as the disaster is happening (as long as you have that smartphone access and it’s still up).

Then there’s a few apps that might be helpful even if the networks are down, if you have the app available. Things that come to mind are a flashlight app – you can download that onto your phone – then even if you don’t have a flashlight, you’ll have it with you n your pocket perhaps. There’s also some First Aid guides – the one that I found which is pretty popular is called iTriage. You can just down those onto your phone and I belive you can access them even if you don’t have service, they’re just on your phone, which can be pretty helpful to carry around. There are also various apps to help you develop your emergency plan so you can just carry it around on your phone. You can just search your app stores for “emergency plans” and things should come up.

During an emergency you can also take advantage of social media and using the technology there – so using things like twitter and facebook. If you somehow do still have internet or you have a data plan on your phone, you can get through on twitter and facebook to update your loved ones on what’s happening with you, even if you can’t get calls through, and you can also look up local resources and see what people are saying about whatever is happening. So you can definitely use technology to help you during a disaster!

Wow, that’s a big list! So, what about using these same technologies after an emergency?

Again, that social media piece that I mentioned during an emergency can help after. And it might even be more helpful after, when services have been restored and you do have access to more of them. Looking up your local government, or Red Cross, or hospital’s twitter feeds or facebook streams – people will often post resources there for places to go for shelter, places that have power. So social media, again, is a good place to go in an emergency and the immediate aftermath, and then even continuing on – there are resources that can be found for months, even, after a disaster – people are out there looking to support the people who have gone through awful things. You can actually use some tools – there’s a tool called Hootsuite - that can help you monitor all the different information that’s out there. You can set up different searches, so that if you are trying to keep track of all the different things that are coming through social media after a disaster, Hootsuite is one option. There is also a Red Cross Shelter App that can help you find a shelter.

And also important after an emergency is to use the technology you have available to document the damage that has happened, so you have pictures for insurance purposes and all of that good stuff. I know when my parents had a hurricane go through their neighbors took digital photographs and were able to send them over the phone - my parents were out of town - so you can help each other out with those digital pictures and let people know what's going on.

That sounds really great. This is all good advice - but what about preparing our technology beforehand so that we know it will be there for us when we need it most? Getting our phones ready, getting our computers ready - getting all of this stuff ready to go in case of an emergency?

That's a key question. It's important to have all of this stuff in place before the disaster happens. And, of course, even if you have the technology, it won't be able to make up for the fact if you're not actually prepared beforehand - it's just there to help you when and if a disaster happens. So it's really key to make sure that everything is ready.

The one thing you can do with all of those files that I mentioned at the beginning: Saving those files to Dropbox and everything, definitely do that beforehand, and do save things in multiple places. So if you have it saved on the hard drive of your laptop, put it on a thumb drive as well, save it to a CD and put it in the trunk of your car so that you know it's there, so wherever you are, whatever you're able to bring with you would be with you as well.

If possible - this is kind of common sense - definitely have extra batteries and alternate charging devices. There are solar battery chargers out there, there are crank chargers that can be useful, depending on what is available. (If there's no power, your regular outlet charger is not going to work.) There is actually a weather radio that I have from the Red Cross that is both solar powered and has a hand crank, so you can actually put your charger, attach it to the radio, and hand crank to charge your phone enough to charge it to send a text if necessary. So there's all kinds of things out there, but you need to make sure you have it beforehand.

You can also consider having a generator for if you lose power, to keep things going within your own home. But you definitely don’t want to have it indoors, so when you get the generator, look in to how you need to protect it from the elements but not use it indoors, where it could be very dangerous to you and your family.

And know beforehand – know about your community resources. Use that technology, use the Internet to look up everything beforehand, and write that down and put it in a safe place. And get those apps and put them on your phone beforehand. One good place that I didn’t mention for finding some of those apps that are useful in an emergency is the Disaster Information Management Research Center (which I was slightly involved with and mentioned) – they have a great list of mobile device apps that are available on different platforms. So definitely get those on your devices beforehand; they’re small, they don’t take up a lot of space, and then you’ll just have them if you ever do need them.

And then just know your community resources. I’ll just mention the public libraries and your librarians are a great resource – go to them beforehand, figure out what they might have during an emergency – just ask what services they can provide during an emergency. Public libraries are actually now eligible for FEMA support during a disaster; they’ve been recognized for providing essential services, so they should be able to get up and running again after a disaster faster than some. (But you would want to check with them beforehand to make sure they would be prepared to do that!)

But of course, nothing beats having the kit, having the plan, making sure all your technology will help you and not hinder you before an emergency ever strikes.

Well you’ve given us some really great advice today on how to be prepared for a disaster digitally. Before we go, do you have any last words of advice or anything you’d like to add?

Yes! Talk to your librarians! We’re always happy to help. We can help you get started and sift through all of the information that’s out there on some of these topics.

That’s great. That’s a great resource for the community that I bet a lot of people don’t know that they have to help them get ready for a disaster – librarians! So Amy, thank you so much for talking with us today, and thank you for sharing all of that great information.

Thanks so much for speaking with me!

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