'21st-Century Disaster Tips You Won't Hear From Officials' Can Save Lives in Winter Storms

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Innovative use of cell phones, laptops and other wireless devices can provide life-saving communication for those caught in the continuing series of disastrous winter storms that have lashed the nation -- while inappropriate use of the same technologies can make a bad situation worse. Disaster and homeland security consultant W. David Stephenson, himself caught in last year's Valentine's Day blizzard in Pennsylvania, has released a series of YouTube videos and provides more tips on his blog in a series he calls "21st-century disaster tips you won't hear from officials."

Innovative use of cell phones, laptops and other wireless devices can provide life-saving communication for those caught in the series of winter storms that continue to lash the nation.

Disaster and homeland security consultant W. David Stephenson, of Stephenson Strategies (Medfield, MA) -- himself caught on I-78 in last year's Valentine's Day blizzard in Pennsylvania -- has released a series of YouTube videos (http://tinyurl.com/35yc6r) and provides more tips on his popular blog (http://tinyurl.com/26zjsy) in a series he calls "21st-century disaster tips you won't hear from officials."

"It's become second nature for us to use cell phones and computers in disasters to get information and contact family and friends," Stephenson said. "Using them creatively can provide valuable information to authorities and link with others trapped in the same storm or without power in our neighborhoods. However, inappropriate use, especially making voice calls, can make a bad situation worse."

Among other tips, Stephenson says:
*Free software from CUWin, a non-profit group, lets neighbors or truckers (who increasingly carry laptops) to set up wireless networks to communicate, either in a normal neighborhood or a virtual, linear one when thousands are stranded on an Interstate highway.

*Camera phones let individuals provide valuable "situational awareness" to authorities that create processes similar to New York City's one to gather and process the information.

  • Twitter, a texting service individuals use to let friends and/or the public, know what they are doing at the moment (http://twitter.com), can also convey instant information about an emergency, as happened in the California wildfires or the I-35 bridge collapse. A single Twitter message can also let all your family and friends know you are OK or need assistance.

Because it uses a maximum of 140-character messages and is packet-based (so it can route around network disruptions), Stephenson said Twitter and other social networking SMS applications are preferable to making voice calls, which usually won't get through and may cripple cell phone networks. He noted that the American Red Cross has created several Twitter "channels" for emergency use.

*When power is out and all infrastructure is interrupted, neighbors can follow the lead of a D.C. group and still relay vital information via a simple network of $20, battery-operated walkie-talkies.

The tips also include cutting-edge techniques using technologies such as GPS or the self-powered OLPC laptops created for educational use in developing nations.

Stephenson Strategies is under contract to create a nationwide public education project in 2008 to inform the public about smart use of wireless devices in emergencies.

Stephenson Strategies is a strategy and communications firm specializing in innovative Web 2.0-based approaches in the homeland security, disaster management, and e-gov fields to empower the public and make them full partners in preparation and response.

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