Tech Tips for Hurricanes, Fires, Earthquakes, and Other Minor Nuisances

By  |  Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 10:06 am

Steve Bass's TechBiteDisasters happen often and everywhere. Last September it was Hurricane Ike; just recently, Australia was enveloped in a massive wildfire. And California’s due for a humdinger of an earthquake.

This week I have a bunch of things I thought you (and I!) might find useful if we’re ever in a tough spot. Read on for Web sites to track emergencies, ways to plan for a disaster, and tools you can use.

(BTW, Australian Robert Meers offered his thanks in a recent e-mail: “I want everyone to know how the help of the American firefighters from California is appreciated down here. We had the worst bushfire (the Australian version of your brush fire) in our history, with over 200 people killed. And as usual, the Americans were here to help, along with their monster water-carrying helicopters. Thanks, thanks, thanks.”)

Listen to Live Feeds on the Net

The Internet is loaded with spots that broadcast during emergencies. You might consider saving this section of this story, just in case.

As you browse through these links, you’ll see that some sites have standard fare — news and weather, say. But they’ll kick into action if there’s a severe situation, usually gearing up with local TV broadcasts. For instance, during the Katrina fiasco, Weatherserver had three TV feeds on the air. The National Weather Situation also covered Katrina with six windows showing weather and satellite maps, and TV and radio feeds.

Television broadcasts are fairly common across the Net. There’s Joost and MyTVPal and a host of others. My focus is strictly news: You can watch Los Angeles stations KCBS and Fox in your browser; DMZ has multiple live Los Angeles video feeds. Ditto for LiveNewsCameras. Sometimes AM-FM radio is a better bet in an emergency, so New Posttry Live-Radio.

I’ve been able to glean inside information by listening to police and fire department scanners. Finding the local scanner will take some digging, but it’s worth the trouble. I have to admit that I love watching California police pursuits while listening to CHP and LAPD talk about what’s really happening, especially when I’m on deadline (like, uh, now.). I covered this topic in a recent story, so read Like Action? Listen to Police and Fire Scanners to find a few sites with scanners in your area — or wherever there’s a disaster.

Put Together a Disaster Kit

We have the usual stuff–food, water, flashlights, beer and wine–as well as a checklist of contact info for friends and relatives, and emergency services. We also have a crank-powered radio (more on that later).

If you don’t have a kit to prepare for your area’s brand of disaster, you really should put one together. There are plenty of Web sites offering lists and procedures to get you started.

You might want to begin your research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site, where you’ll find information to help you prepare for any manner of disaster: earthquakes, extreme heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, you name it.

The Earthquake Store has details that you can use to create an emergency handbook. Dig into PDFs for ways to protect your family as well as pets, seniors, and physically challenged people in an emergency.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a valuable page that talks about preparing for floods, fires, and all the other disasters you might face. [Thanks, Pete.]

Disaster Equipment To Keep Handy

It seems to me that everyone needs a self-sufficient radio–and the essential component is that the radios use a hand crank to generate their own power, so no batteries are required. I spotted Eton’s American Red Cross FR150 emergency radio at the Consumer Electronic Show in January. It’s $30 at many retailers, including Amazon.

Eaton has a bunch more models with similar features. The differences include having access to either the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather or short-wave broadcasts. Unfortunately, TV-VHF broadcasts are no longer available on these radios, likely because North America will eventually have all-digital TV broadcasting. [Thanks to Gary Fisher for this good catch.]

What’s also neat is that these radios have a connection that can charge most cell phones. There’s a however, though: You’ll need lots of cranking (and I don’t mean kvetching). The manual says, “Because cell phone batteries vary in their current ratings, we cannot specify charging rates or usage time. 10 to 15 minutes of cranking may result in 1 or more minutes of talk-time.”

If you don’t need all the bells and whistles, and just want to charge your cell phone, I spotted two refs to hand-cranked chargers. (here and here). You’re on your own; I haven’t tried either.

What You Have To Say

Back in my PC World days, I wrote about Hurricane Ike and received a slew of e-mails about how people cope in an emergency. Here are their recommendations:

* Bill Geist, an electrician and sound guy (he’s been in the business for 40 years) offered his “What to do when the electricity goes out at your home in an emergency” list.

* Crackerboy (aka Bill Webb) posted Keep Your Cell Phone Charged During Power Outages Using Your UPS on his blog. It’s worth the read.

* Danna Henderson maintains her landline and “keeps an old-fashioned phone in the closet that plugs directly into it.” That way, she says, “I can get a dialup connection for emergencies.” She also has a cigarette lighter cell phone charger, “an essential part of the arsenal.”

* My tech editor, Rod Ream, echoes the thought: ” Are all your phones cordless? If the power fails you won’t be able to make a 911 call in an emergency. It’s always a good bet to have at least one corded phone connected wherever you are.”

* Jay Roth, from Missouri, experienced a massive ice storm a few years ago. “It knocked us off the power grid in the WINTER. If not for landline phones (I opted out of offered VOIP after a thunderstorm that took electricity out for two days) we would have no communication with the outside world.”

* Ronald Nickelson: “I was able to get the recorded emergency calls from the city via my Cincinnati Bell hardwired land line. My neighbors who had cordless phones or Time Warner cable phone were incommunicado.”

* Joe DeRose said, “I am fortunate to have earned a ham radio license back in the early 90s (AA3BT), and a portable ham radio can operate completely off the grid.”

* Gary Fisher suggests that “a cheap office-style UPS, provided it’s kept charged, can let you run one or two devices for at least a few hours, say, a small lamp and TV.”

[This post is excerpted from Steve’s TechBite newsletter. If you liked it, head here to sign up–it’s delivered on Wednesdays to your inbox, and it’s free.]

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