Saturday, November 21, 2015

Step 6: There's an App for That!

When I was nine years old, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  "An astronaut, archaeologist or a go-go dancer,” I replied.  I swear I'm not making this up.

If you don't know what a go-go dancer is, then let me to explain.  During the 1960s, go-go dancers were the girls wearing tight mini-skirts and knee-high white boots while dancing in cages overlooking a pulsating dance floor.  I really liked those boots. 

Personally, I think the go-go dancer career choice should have been a red flag but my parents just smiled and nodded.  Fortunately, the dance world remained safe and, instead, I grew up to become a reporter, pilot and disaster communications professional.

But, before all that happened, I first enrolled in university to become an archaeologist.  Since my childhood love of dinosaurs had been unshakable, I signed up for some classes where, to my significant embarrassment, I learned that archeology and paleontology were actually two very different disciplines.  Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists don’t study dinosaurs, they study past cultures.  Who knew?

Although my university classes eventually taught me how to say “Australopithecus,” I realized that I wasn’t cut out for a career that might, if I was really lucky, culminate in a ground-breaking discovery based on an ancient pottery chip the size of a nickel.  Truthfully, I just wanted to find Atlantis.  That self-awareness, combined with a bad back, sent me down an entirely different career path but I never lost my love of all things ancient. 
Today, I have a lot of admiration for archaeologists and paleontologists (those lucky people who really do study dinosaurs) because, like me, they, too, want to know what the heck happened back then.  And, that’s where space science might one day be able to provide some of those missing puzzle pieces.  Some large gaps in human history may be related to natural disasters that came from above and have yet to be identified.  I’m a firm believer that a surprised “uh oh” has been uttered immediately prior to many historical turning points.

While scientists hunt for clues to our past, others are wondering if we will have enough time to find them before something else happens.  Is there any danger that past events could return to take down our civilization?  Some say yes, others say no.  If you want to ensure that your family is safe and prepared, how do you determine the risk level?  Is it real or just hype? 
Let's take a look at one of my favorite threats, our sun – the giver of life, red, blistery skin and squinty-eyed photos.  Now, just to clarify for those readers who are not science junkies, yes, our sun is a star and, no, it's not on fire.  And, just to cover off all my bases, yes, we orbit around it – something we've been doing for a very long time.

So, what's the problem then?  Well, quite frequently, the sun vomits and, if we happen to be in the way, space weather scientists will then announce that a solar flare is on its way and "earth-directed."  If we're not in the way, then the solar flare goes flying past and takes out somebody else.  Apparently, that's usually Mars. (Read Cosmos Magazine's How the Sun stole Mars' atmosphere)

When we are in the way of a solar flare, which happens A LOT, typically, there's little damage thanks to Earth's protective magnetic field which is actually produced by the rotation of our planet's core (we think). 

Solar storms are just a fact of life on Earth.  Sometimes, they’re responsible for annoyingly dropped cellphone calls, HAM radio disruption, GPS coordinates off by a few yards and pretty aurora light shows.  If you’ve ever lived in a far north or far south part of the globe, you’ve likely seen the aurora lights as a dancing, wavy curtain of green in the sky.  Sometimes, the aurora can be red (rare) or a mixture of colors depending on levels of oxygen in the upper atmosphere.  I know.  Too much science.  I'll stop. 

But, in addition to flares, there's another kind of solar storm called a coronal mass ejection (CME).  They both come from the sun but, as NASA explains it, if solar flares are a muzzle flash, then a CME is a cannonball.  It's a good analogy.   

CMEs are massive, fast-moving bursts of solar matter, ejected outwards from the sun and travelling at around one million miles per hour.  As naturally-occurring electromagnetic pulses, they are so powerful that they temporarily deform our planet's magnetic field, change the direction of compass needles and create large electrical ground currents in the Earth itself. 

It’s been rumored that some countries are trying to turn the CME phenomena into a weapon using man-made electromagnetic pulses called EMPs.  An EMP weapon would likely originate from a satellite and, if unleashed on a target, like a city, could cause every electronic device and computer to instantly fail, achieving the ultimate blue screen of death for millions.  This failure would be complete with no reboot possible as all data and operating systems would be erased when the EMP hit. 

Unfortunately, a naturally-produced massive CME from the sun could do much worse.  A CME could destroy civilization as we know it and here's how. 

Although Earth has been living with the sun’s mood swings for a very long time, it’s only during the last 100 years that our society has been living full-time with electricity.  Today, transmission lines, transformers and the grid could become supercharged by the extra current and permanently fail during a massive CME like the one that occurred in 1859. 

Named after British astronomer, Richard Carrington, the 1859 Carrington event is the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded and one that gives many people the willies.  (Read National Geographic's What if the biggest solar storm on record happened today?)

In February, 2012, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) released a report asserting that even a worst-case geomagnetic "super storm" like the 1859 Carrington event would likely not damage most power grid transformers but could cause voltage instability and possibly result in a blackout lasting hours or days, but not months or years.  That’s good, right?  Inconvenient but we could survive that. 
Unfortunately, NERC’s assertions were not supported by any of the official studies performed by the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Government.  In fact, reports by the Congressional EMP Commission (2008), the National Academy of Sciences (2008), the Department of Energy and NERC itself in 2010 (High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (2010) and, more recently, the Defence Committee of the British Parliament (2012) all independently arrived at the same conclusion – that a great geomagnetic storm would cause widespread damage to power grid transformers, result in a protracted blackout lasting months or years and have catastrophic consequences for society.  That’s bad.

At the time, the man who presented these findings as well as an analysis of the conflicting information was Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security – a group established to advise the U.S. Congress on natural and man-made EMPs and other threats, and what to do about them.  He noted, in his presentation, that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report concluded that power could be interrupted for several years.  He also let it be known that he was not impressed with NERC’s “junk science” and that pilot projects, seeking protective solutions, needed to be initiated immediately.
Quite frankly, it was both scary and heart-warming to see a report that was easy to understand and passionate about the risk level.  Since most are reluctant to stick their necks out and ring the alarm bells, we would do well to listen to a distinguished scientist such as Dr. Pry as he tries to warn people.

So, has anything been done to address this worst-case scenario?  Wikipedia has an interesting entry that says, “Because of serious concerns that utilities have failed to set protection standards and are unprepared for a severe solar storm such as a Carrington event, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is now in the process of a proposed ruling that may require utilities to create a standard that would require power grids to be protected from severe solar storms.”
Unfortunately, actually implementing the necessary changes to protect any country’s electrical infrastructure is going to be exceptionally costly and difficult.  While new transformers and transmissions lines may be somewhat protected, most believe that it is nearly impossible to retrofit any protection into older equipment which makes up the majority of the North American electrical grid.  And, without pilot projects to find out, we’ll never know.

A CME that takes down the grid is a great example of how bad things can happen to good people.  Some scientists believe that an extended blackout of up to three years could occur if a CME overloaded it.  Remember back to the last power outage you experienced.  For most people, the computer was down but your cellphone worked.  The fridge stayed cold for awhile and flashlights or candles gave off some light until the power came back on a few hours later.  Now, imagine the power not coming back on for three years. 
Three years.  No electricity.  It's an apocalyptic scenario.

A Carrington-style event has never hit us during a time of heavy dependence on electrical utilities but the implications of that are simply terrifying.   Damage would be widespread and repairs nearly impossible since the factories that manufacture the replacement parts for transformers and transmission lines would not be running because, well, there's no electricity.  Nations would go dark in more ways than one.

Even though our society would crumble, the planet would look exactly as it had before the massive CME hit.  Blue skies, sun shinning, cats being lazy.  The only difference is that there would be no electricity and that one fact would end our civilization as we know it.  No banking, no life-saving medications, no mass food production, no fuel, no communication, no transportation of goods or people, no critical infrastructure operating.  You get the idea.

So, what happened the last time this occurred?

Back in 1859, life, for many, was hard but early technology was in use.  An American patent for an indoor toilet had been granted two years earlier, in 1857, while the first sewing machine and steamboat already existed.  Machine guns (1862), a motion picture camera (1889) and the radio (1891) were just about to be invented.  The telephone would take another 17 years before it first appeared in 1876. 
Of course, when the Carrington event hit, computers had yet to be invented but the telegraph was in existence.  All over Europe and North America, telegraph systems failed and, in some cases, actually shocked the people using them.  Even more startling, some machines continued to work even after operators had disconnected their batteries.

During this event, the Boston Traveler newspaper reported the following conversation between two operators of the American Telegraph Line between Boston and Portland, Maine:
Boston operator (to Portland operator): “Please cut off your battery entirely for fifteen minutes.”

Portland: “Will do so.  It is now disconnected.”
Boston: “Mine is disconnected and we are working with the auroral current.  How do you receive my writing?”

Portland: “Better than with our batteries on.  Current comes and goes gradually.”
Boston: “My current is very strong at times and we can work better without the batteries as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets.  Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.”

Portland: “Very well.  Shall I go ahead with business?”
Boston: “Yes. Go ahead.”

These operators didn’t know it at the time but they were writing history, literally. 
The Carrington event was so strong that, according to other reports, the “northern lights” were seen around the world, even as far south as the Caribbean.  Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains awoke in the middle of the night and began preparing breakfast because the aurora’s glow simulated morning sunlight while other people claimed they could read a newspaper by its light.   

Since then, smaller solar storms have occurred in 1921 and 1960, causing significant radio disruption, while another geomagnetic storm in 1989 knocked out power across large sections of Quebec, Canada.  Why Quebec?  No one knows for sure but it was likely just a case of being in the wrong latitude at the right time. 
Since most of Quebec sits on hard rock, known as the Canadian Shield, the auroral current may have been prevented from travelling through the ground and, instead, much to the dismay of many, it chose the path of least resistance which was Hydro Quebec’s long transmission lines, causing a significant blackout.  During that same event, polar satellites also lost control for several hours and even the space shuttle Discovery had sensor problems which went away after the solar storm ended.

Now, if you're still with me, then, congratulations on making it this far (this blog is a long one but I felt it couldn't be chopped into two posts).  Having said that, I'd understand if you might be incredulously wondering what's the chance of this happening again? 

Seriously, what are the chances?

No one is sure but, brace yourself, NASA recently revealed that we narrowly missed a Carrington event on July 23, 2012.  The event happened but our orbital position allowed for a glancing blow instead of a full-on hit.  Researchers believe that, had it hit, the event would have been stronger than a Carrington event and that it actually involved two CMEs.  If you're not totally panicked or depressed by now, you can read NASA's release about it entitled Carrington-class CME narrowly misses Earth.

Needless to say, if you haven't decided on what level you want to prep to, then a Carrington event might persuade you to go all the way.  With any disaster, you'll want to stash some cash and, with more severe disaster types, you'll want to stock some gold and silver.  But, if a Carrington event happens again, packets of seeds will be the new currency.

Step 6: There's an App for That!

When you put together an emergency kit or stock long-term supplies, one item that's often overlooked is information.  Although there's an impressive group of people out there that have taught themselves how to re-start civilization, most of us haven't had the inclination to even get a kit together, let alone learn how to grow potatoes or build a shelter from tree branches. 

But, if you're interested, there's a wealth of knowledge available, including free books, training and cellphone apps, to help you learn everything you've ever wanted to know about prepping but were afraid to ask. 

All it takes is a little of your time to browse through the links below to see what you'd like to know ahead of an incident.  Or, store the info as a hard-copy in your emergency kits for use during or after an incident.  If you don't have time to learn it now, there's a good chance you'd have time to learn it long as you can access the information.

At the very least, make sure to include (and protect in a waterproof container) a hard copy version of a survival first aid manual.

Remember, a CME might take down the grid so don't rely 100% on e-books.  Read them now but make sure you have printed hard-copies of your favorite publications and checklists (many government publications are available in printed form for free or you can use your own printer, although there's the cost of ink to think about).

Free Books and Publications

How-to knowledge, especially for surviving specific risks like an earthquake or a tornado, is a vital aspect of pre-incident preparedness while other books, like ones on survival and first aid, are perfect for including in long-term supplies.  

Don't forget to include a few start-civilization-over books.  For example, a book on identifying herbs and poisonous plants, understanding weather systems, how to cultivate a garden and another one on identifying animal tracks are great items to include in your the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI) kit.  Yes, there really is an acronym for that.  Anyway, here's a few to get you started.  

Free Preparedness Info (this link has a staggering list of free downloads in all categories)

Free Kindle Books on preparedness, homesteading and survival (check often, typically free for only 24 hours so watch the price on download)

Free Family Planning for Disasters Publications (a mixture of hard-copies and PDFs available from the US Government, similar webpages may exist in other countries)

Free FEMA Publications (covering seniors, families, businesses, special needs and pets, available as hard copies and PDFs)

You can also search for your own country's free publications using search terms like "free emergency preparedness books" or "free disaster planning."  Just add the word "free" in front of your search term.

Free Training

To find a resource in your country, try doing a search using terms like "free emergency training" or "free emergency planning course."  Here's a small sample below, just to illustrate what's available.

(USA) FEMA offers free distance learning for members of the general public as well as emergency responders and volunteers.  Currently, there are 197 courses to choose from.

(USA) American Red Cross offers free courses in disaster preparedness and other related topics.  Make sure to search online for your local area.

(Canada) The City of Vancouver offers free disaster planning workshops covering everything from tsunamis to heat waves.

(New Zealand) Massey University offers free emergency management courses covering resilience, readiness, response and recovery. 

Another way to gain free training is to consider joining a club or volunteer organization.  In the US, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members receive training, opportunities to participate in disaster exercises and mentorship from those who have real-life experience.

Free Videos

Don't forget to check out YouTube to see what videos are available.  Just enter search terms like "growing vegetables" or "survival tips."  Here's a few but the sky's the limit when it comes to search topics.  Pick a subject and press play.

(Family Disaster Planning)

(Jamie Lee Curtis for the Red Cross)

(Car Emergency Kit)

(Active Shooter Survival Tips)

Free Cellphone Apps

Since we have electricity, let's embrace all that it offers including these free cellphone apps.  By searching, you'll find others that do everything from monitoring river levels (for flooding) to coaching victims of PTSD (see link below).

Top 5 Free Disaster Apps for iPhone and Android

Disaster Radar (Real-time global monitoring, needs iTunes account, free, most countries)

Red Cross (Suite of free Red Cross apps from first aid to disaster alerts, worth checking)

PTSD Coach (Free from Veterans Affairs, downloaded 100,000 times in 74 countries)

Weather Disaster Alert (for Android phones, free)

Weather Underground (for iOS phones, free)

Weather Underground (for Android phones, free)

Earth Alerts (Windows, global coverage, option to send alerts to your cellphone, free)

Free Pet First Aid Apps

Let's not forget to prepare a kit for our furry loved ones and then download a pet first ad app to help in emergencies.

Red Cross Pet First Aid (for Android phones, free)

Red Cross Pet First Aid (for iOS phone, free although the CNET link mentions .99 cent cost, I believe it's a mistake as the Apple site says its free and that matches with the Android version).

Good luck with the inclusion of knowledge into your emergency planning and preparedness efforts.  Knowledge is power but it's also survival.

Thanks for reading and happy learning!

Please subscribe to this blog or you can follow it by providing your email address.  Also, please feel free to follow my Twitter feed @Plan_Prep_Live  and like my Facebook company page, both of which cover disaster incidents around the world.  And, if we haven't already connected, then here's my LinkedIn profile. 
© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Step 5: Free for the Asking

You know it's bad when you're diverting a massive ocean-going ferry up a river channel to evacuate an entire Canadian town and, yet, that's exactly what we were doing.  With a 200-year cyclic flood happening, roads were washed out from torrential rains and the only airport was socked in by bad weather.

For Bella Coola, a scenic remote town nestled 62 miles (100 km) inland, at the gate of the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of British Columbia, water was about to destroy it and provide the only means of escape.  A quick phone call had filled me in on this detail but not much more other than my disaster communications team had been activated and, apparently, there was a flight waiting for me.

Thanks to a fly-out kit stashed in my car's trunk, I arrived at the airport quickly, expecting to be on the next available plane, but, instead, found myself with an empty aircraft at my disposable along with two uniformed pilots who had no idea where they were flying to.  Unfortunately, neither did I.

My communications team came from many different government ministries and was scattered across a province the same size as a few European countries lumped together.  I needed to make some calls to see who could depart immediately and be picked up by my aircraft or follow behind in a few hours or rotate in later, depending on the duration of the incident.

The pilots looked at me expectantly for instructions.  Flight planning in the air isn't ideal but, until I talked to the team, "head east" was all I could tell them.  I had no time to explain that I held a commercial pilot's licence and that I felt bad about the situation. 

Fortunately, a few phone calls and 20 minutes later, we had a route picked out after some frantic flight planning on the fly (pun intended).  The three of us took a collective deep breath which is when the co-pilot asked, incredulously, "Who are you?"

Caught off-guard by the question, I'm sure I looked like a deer in the headlights.  Over the sound of the engines, I shook my head and yelled "nobody important."  Of course, looking back, this reply inadvertently added to the mystery of how and why I was given an aircraft.  In fairness, my answer might have been influenced by the fact that, earlier that week, I had accidentally sat through an entire high-level meeting with a big red dot on the end of my nose.  I swear I am not making this up. 

To the credit of my all-male colleagues, no one at the meeting snickered and it wasn't until I went to the ladies room later that I discovered the nose art.  Staring at my Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer face in the washroom mirror, I was mortified but not overly surprised.  Since I have a long-standing feud with Mother Nature, a lot of "stuff" just happens to me and I've come to accept it.  I suspected she might have had a hand in this escapade as well but I couldn't figure out how.  Then, I looked at my coffee cup.

Rushing to the meeting, I had stopped to pick up a decaf fat-free latte (otherwise known as a "why bother").  The barista had marked the lid with a bright red marker to denote that it was decaf and to stop annoying people like me from double-checking.  Each time I took a sip, the red dot on the lid was lined up with the tip of my nose so that it transferred its distinctive color perfectly.  Sigh.  Although I couldn't blame Mother Nature for this one, I was pretty sure she had been giving lessons to the Universe on how to get me.

Fast forward to the aircraft enroute to a 200-year flood and why feeling "important" was the last thing on my radar.  If "importance" was a sauce, I would no doubt be wearing it, splattered down the front of my shirt.  Fortunately for me, there's no place for self-importance in disasters anyway. 

Instead, savvy experienced emergency managers know the value of teamwork and that means getting along with other agencies and staying focused on the incident.  Sure, there are always some overbearing Type A personalities and ego-maniacs but we tend to dislike them and avoid, where possible. 

It takes a tremendous amount of resources and a lot of skill from many different disciplines to respond effectively to an incident and, in some cases, you never get to meet everyone working the same event.  Sometimes, they are nothing more than a voice on a static-filled radio or the hand that makes a piece of equipment miraculously appear.  Their role may be visible or invisible, pivotal or supportive.  It doesn't matter because it all counts.

If you've ever done a real disaster (and I've done 11), you soon learn how many unsung heroes there are, working behind the scenes and completing tasks that don't get a lot of thanks or media attention.  Many times, I've been deeply grateful for the volunteers, civilians, organizations and even impacted residents that step up to the plate in the most admirable way when we need them the most.

Their contribution may appear small but it often comes with a positive result that can be significant and lasting.  To give you a few real-life examples from disasters I've done, here's a small selection of the many people that deserved the salute of gratitude:
  • The phone company technician who came in on a Sunday and turned a hotel meeting room into a communications center extraordinaire with a dozen Internet-connected work stations and six dedicated phone lines.
  • The people who called in sightings of smoke after a lightning storm had passed through.
  • The nameless person who figured out how to program a temperamental (insert your choice of profanity here) fax machine for group distribution.
  • The computer store owner who opened up in the wee hours, ransacked his equipment and drove it all out to our location then set it up.
  • The local residents who baked us home-made pies to help us through three devastating class A wildfires happening at the same time.
  • The company who donated a box of new cellphones because, yeah, sometimes you scale up so big that you don't have everything you need.
  • The IT guy who never blinked at our requests and just made it happen.
  • The volunteers who manned checkpoints in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night.
  • The thousands of people who listened to instructions and followed them.
Respecting your hidden army of support, regardless of whether they have a badge, wear a name tag or display a shoulder flash, is one of the signs of a professional emergency response.  And, as it turned out, Bella Coola's 200-year flood was about to demonstrate this in spades. 

One of my personal mandates for the communications team was to have a fully-functioning communications center within 45 minutes of wheels down.  This was not mandated by our government agency but something that I had set as a goal for the team and something that we were able to achieve in most incidents.

Once the center was up and running and we had received a full briefing, I typically split off two team members to deploy to the actual scene which, in the case of Bella Coola, was 280 miles (451 km) away.  Our center was usually placed far enough away so that we were out of harm's way and would not be taken down by the very disaster we were responding to.  In this case, we were even further out due to mountainous terrain and the remoteness of Bella Coola.

Although information flows into a communications center from many sources, I always prefer to have my own "eyes and ears" at the scene.  In most cases, this allowed our information-gathering to outstrip what the command group was receiving and, typically, within 24 hours, we were ahead of what everyone else had. 

From doing so many real-life incidents, I had noticed that, understandably, operational personnel were so involved in "actioning" the incident that there was a delay in sharing information up the chain of command.  However, my "eyes and ears" team members had no other focus so we were able to leap ahead in the delivery of confirmed information.  These team members were also able to chase down rumors immediately and assist with media at the site.  Ultimately, this helped the command group who now had strong, timely information for decision-making purposes (in Canada, most agencies use the Incident Command System (ICS) to manage events as do some larger corporations).

With a slight break in the weather, my "eyes and ears" Bella Coola team jumped on the next available helicopter to the scene while a media helicopter departed 15 minutes ahead of them.  As the center geared up to its normal state of organized chaos, I learned that the weather had suddenly collapsed and that my team's helicopter was forced to turn back but the media helicopter had made it in.

I had a TV reporter on the ground but no one else so I called him up.  I explained the situation to him and asked if he would provide all information into our center first and then file his stories.  He agreed in a heartbeat.  Yes, folks, reporters are decent human beings.  I know, first hand, because I used to be a reporter and I've worked with many, on both sides of the fence. 

Most people recognize the special circumstances of a disaster and just want to help.  And so we operated like that for a few days until we were finally able to get in.  With a reporter on-scene, we rivalled the best intelligence gathering agency out there and it was common to see members of the command group hanging around our center's entrance watching the information come in and be posted.  If anyone deserved the salute of gratitude, it was this reporter.

So, what's the lesson in this story?  It's that anyone can be a first responder.  You don't need to wear a uniform to help out and any contribution, however small, should be appreciated.

In fact, in many cases, it's civilians who are the first "first responders."  If your neighbor's house is on fire, it will likely be you that calls 911, bangs on the door to alert the residents and helps them escape...long before the sirens start to wail in the distance.

By increasing your own personal preparedness, you can become a better first responder and contribute to an enhanced national level of readiness.  Prepared citizens reduce the burden on uniformed responders, increase community resiliency and save lives and that deserves the respect and gratitude of every emergency manager.

It certainly has mine.

Step 5: Free for the Asking

If you're new to this blog and missed the earlier steps in the Prep for Free program, then you can find them here:
Step 5: Free for the Asking is fairly easy (you can do it in your pajamas, if you like) but assumes you have access to the Internet.  If you don't, you may want to take advantage of some free computer time at a library or use a free cafĂ© Wi-Fi spot.  Do not do that in your pajamas. 

Basically, in Step 5, you're going to sign up for a ton of free samples that will arrive in the mail.  Here are a few key tips for success:  
  1. Get a free email address that you will use just for free samples.  Gmail (Google Mail), Yahoo and many others offer free email addresses so sign up.  Never use your personal or company email address when submitting for samples unless you want an inbox cluttered with spam.  Remember, you get free items in return for companies adding your email address to a database so you'll need an email address that won't mind receiving constant advertisements.  Get a free Gmail account here. 
  2. Get a free phone number.  Don't use your home, work or cell number as you'll likely get unsolicited calls.  There are a few ways to get a free phone number and one of them is Google Voice which uses your Gmail email account.  You can find out more here or search on YouTube for additional sources of free phone numbers.  I haven't been able to test this out because Google Voice is only available in the US.  As I understand it, here's how it works.  When you set up your free Google Voice number, it will want you to forward it to a real number that you own (and it will call you to verify that number).  Once that is done, block the Google Voice number on your real phone so that you don't receive any advertising calls. You can do this with call screening or you can block from the actual telephone handset, depending on what type of phone you have.  Now, you'll still have your free Google phone number for use in registering for free samples but without the forwarded advertising calls.  Since this takes a little work, some of you may be tempted to use a fake phone number when you sign up but please consider that you might be giving advertisers someone else's real phone number.
  3. Use the links below to request a free sample which can go directly into one of your emergency kits.  If the sample size is small, then use in your work, car or go kits.  If you get a full size sample, then it can go into shelter-in-place and long term supplies.
  4. Use your favorite search engine to find more free samples.  There are dozens of free sample websites.  Try search terms like "free samples Canada" or "free samples UK" to see results for your specific country. 
  5. Be aware that some sites want you to rate the sample in return for the free item.  Some sample offerings are also time sensitive so you'll need to watch for sample releases. 
A few free sample sites that are popular (but there are many more):
Also, here's a great video with examples of what the host received for free along with some additional tips.  You'll instantly see how many items are perfect for emergency kits as free samples tend to be packaged for long-term storage.  From protein bars to dog food, there's no limit on the kinds of items you can get for free!

If you live outside of the USA, don't despair as many sites are designed for international use or you can search and use websites for your specific country.

Good luck!

P.S. My apologies, once again, for the long gap between blogs.  I'm currently working on launching a new disaster communications training website.  I'll let you know when it's ready! 

Don't forget to subscribe to this blog or you can follow it by providing your email address.  Also, please feel free to follow my Twitter feed @Plan_Prep_Live  and like my Facebook company page, both of which cover disaster incidents around the world.  And, if we haven't already connected, then here's my LinkedIn profile. 
© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle

Friday, August 7, 2015

Step 4: Buy low, sell high

The letter that would dramatically kick-start my emergency management career landed on my government desk inside a mangled brown inter-office envelope with a number of signatures on the back and a classic red string looped around a button clasp that was supposed to keep it secure.

The acceptance signatures were like passport stamps, chronicling this envelope's many mailroom journeys, and, like the nosy person I am, I checked them all out before adding my signature to the long list.  Then I opened the envelope and pulled out a one-page sheet with a big crest embossed on the top left corner.

This was a seriously-official letter.

It informed me (guised as a "request") that I should fulfil the role of communications 2IC for a massive three-day joint disaster exercise between the feds and the western provinces.  I had no idea what a 2IC was and read it as "twenty-one C."  Despite my complete ignorance, I decided right then that I was going to be the best damn twenty-one C that they had ever had!

Later, I learned that 2IC stood for "second-in-command."  (This is what "leaning in" looks like in real life.  It's enthusiastically putting up your hand when you have no clue what's going on.) 

I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I was second-in-command because that meant there was somebody who was first-in-command.  Little did I know that the 2IC does all the work and that I would barely see my higher-up-the-chain-of-command person who had no more experience or training than I did. 

The year was 1992 and the exercise scenario was a mega-thrust earthquake along the Pacific coast.  I'll let that one sink in, for a moment.  Yes, in 1992, we were already training for a mega-thrust quake.  We've known for a very long time what you might have just read about recently.

Day 1 arrived and I showed up in my Forest Service uniform to lead a team I had never met before, to participate in a disaster exercise for which I had no training.  The only thing I had going for me was my training as a pilot which had taught me how to think through rapidly-evolving situations that have a tendency to go sour.  (Today, I would never do this to a team and expect to see good results.  Training is critical to success.) 

I wish I could say that the government's confidence in my abilities were based on some sort of selection criteria but they weren't.  I just happened to be an appropriate body to fill a seat on short notice which illustrates the real inside level of planning and coordination and should provide ample insight as to why personal preparedness is so important.  Don't rely on any agency to take care of you.

Still, all things considered, my team did pretty good, given the horrific scenario.  Some people see disaster exercises as "compressed time torture" but I prefer to see them as "team bonding opportunities."  Some memorable highlights include:
  • Dispatching hand-written critical information via messengers on foot and on bicycles to the only radio station still operating on a generator because there was no power and the streets were covered with debris and impassable to vehicles 
  • Learning that some designated shelter locations for the public were no longer standing
  • Taking over a telephone company and its staff to set up a public hotline using our state of emergency legislation
  • The grounds of a cemetery that liquefied and clogged a river with floating coffins (simulation)
  • Finding out what kind of personalities will step up to the task or crumble in chaotic environments
  • Discovering that nothing is so severe that you cannot stop and thank your staff.
If I could share just one take-away with all emergency response agencies, it would be "stop assuming that you will have electricity."  Trust me, you won't.  Your planning must begin with no infrastructure and evolve from there.  You'll likely find pockets of electricity or you'll get it back in time but you cannot assume it will be functioning at the start of the event.  I see many agencies making this mistake in their emergency planning.

And, when it comes to earthquake preparedness, let's stop sugar-coating what we tell the public.  The recent and much-talked-about New Yorker article was accurate and alarmist and that's exactly what's needed.  My experience with the general public is that they will only prepare if they are sufficiently alarmed. 

In my past disaster management role, I was once accused of being alarmist by a mother who called into a radio show that I was on.  She was incensed that, as a government agency, we dared to send earthquake preparedness pamphlets home with her child.

There were many ways to respond to that accusation so I chose to ask how many bridges she crossed during her daily commute to work.  She answered "two."  Next, I asked what was her plan to get back home to her child with both bridges out after a big quake?  There was dead silence.  "Do you have a boat?"  "How many miles can you walk in a day?"  Can you swim across a large river?

And that, in a nutshell, is why we send home pamphlets.  To help your family survive when you're not able to be there.

Throughout our day-to-day lives, most of us incorporate preparedness without ever thinking about it.   For example, we wouldn’t go to a job interview, defend ourselves in a court trial or write a university exam without doing some preparation first.

Similarly, emergency preparedness increases your odds of a successful outcome but it does not necessarily reflect the odds of ever needing those emergency kits or stockpiled supplies.  However, life is just random enough that many are not willing to gamble their lives on it.  They’d rather be prepared and never use those items than experience the stomach-churning realization that it’s too late to prepare.  If you’ve ever tried to buy water, food or batteries ahead of a storm, you’ll know exactly what this means.

The easiest way to envision disaster preparedness is an “extended camping trip.”  Many of us are familiar with camping and some even go so far as to rock the camp-out with a hand-crank blender.  There's nothing that says survival more than sipping hand-cranked blender Margaritas around the campfire.  Long gone is the tent that self-destructs with the slightest breeze or the air mattress that lies in wait for its first victim, deflating slowly in the middle of the night.  Today, it's just you, the coyotes and a ton of awesome gadgets.

Now, if you're a follower of this blog, it should come as no surprise that my idea of camping is a Class A motorhome with satellite uplink and an espresso maker.   Unfortunately, this is not the kind of camping I’m referring to in emergency preparedness although, depending on the type of disaster, motorhomes and recreational trailers are definitely a plus, if you have one.

In simpler terms, let's take a look at some easy-to-understand comparisons between emergency kits and real life:

  1. Car emergency kit* = a hiking day trip where no one remembers to bring any trail mix except you (you'll need 12-18 hours worth of supplies)
  2. Work emergency kit* = overtime shift with no food truck stopping by (you'll need 12-18 hours worth of supplies)
  3. Evacuation kit = a weekend group getaway with your kids and pets (you should have three days worth of supplies in backpacks)
  4. Shelter-in-place supplies* = just had plastic surgery and can't be seen in public (1-3 weeks worth of supplies so that you don't need to leave the house, depending on the scenario)
  5. Disaster supplies* = an extended camping trip with no access to amenities including toilet paper (three months worth of supplies)
  6. The end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) kit = loved "Little House on the Prairie," always wanted to be a farmer or maybe a hermit (one year of supplies including seeds, tools, building materials, medical supplies, clothing, how-to books and solar-powered or hand-crank gadgets, guns and ammo optional but recommended)
*Bonus: If you drove to work and your office building has not collapsed, then you can combine your car and work kits together for a full 24 hours of coverage.  Likewise, shelter-in-place and disaster supplies can be combined in the home as well.

Hopefully, the list above helps you set some targets for prepping.  You can decide how much and how far you want to go but I would recommend the first four as a minimum.

And, if you're new to this blog and missed the earlier steps in the Prep for Free program, then you can find them here:
Now, for step 4!

STEP 4: Buy low, sell high

In an era of disposable everything, many of us upgrade our home furnishings, small appliances and electronics as new versions come out.  As proof of this, quite a few of us have at least one cellphone stashed in a drawer that still works just fine but hasn’t been touched in six months. These items may be perfect to sell for hard cash that you can use for prepping. 

As you pillaged your village in step 1, you may have already identified items in the home that you don’t need or use any longer but aren’t suitable for your emergency kit.  If not, then go through each room and consider what you can sell to raise funds.  Then it’s time for a garage sale or some classified ads.  Today, you can place free ads online at sites such as VarageSale, Craigslist and Kijiji and it takes nothing more than your time to start selling some clutter.

Here are some great ways to gain both closet space and money for emergency kits:
  • Sell your broken or unwanted gold or silver jewelry (often, you'll get the best prices from local jewelers compared to national buyers)
  • Sell your used clothing, shoes and purses (you can also consign these items to stores that will sell them for you, higher-end or designer clothes do very well)
  • Sell your older model electronics (don't wait too long to sell things like cellphones, GPS units and cameras since the technology is changing fast and your item will get less money as it gets older)
  • Sell your unwanted small appliances, decorative items and outgrown sports gear (every dollar counts towards your prepping efforts).
  • Sell donated items.  Ask relatives and friends if they have items that need selling and then offer to sell the item for a portion of the proceeds.  Many people don't have the time or can't be bothered to sell their items, choosing to donate them instead.  Explain that you'll do the work of selling their item and you'll split the profit 50/50.
  • Repair items and re-sell.  In many cases, family and friends will be happy to clear out items that need repair, giving them to you for free.  All you have to do is pick the items up and thank them for their generosity.  Next time you see them, let them know what you’re doing and nicely ask for their support.  Make sure to email a free thank-you card or send over some homemade cookies if someone donates to your preparedness efforts.
  • Monitor online ads for free items.  Scroll through the “free” ads which offer items that people just want taken away.  You may find exactly what you need there!  Many people just want to get rid of items, especially towards the end of the month when families are moving.  Make a habit of checking the ads or doing a search for "free" and then select items that you either need for your kits or could re-sell or repair/re-sell for the cash.   
  • If you’re gutsy, place a nicely-worded “wanted for free” ad on the many free online sites.  Indicate clearly what items you need and why and you’ll be surprised by the kindness of strangers.  These items may need to be repaired but they’re still free for the asking. 
  • Don’t forget to talk to your employer.  Companies sometimes happily pass on items to employees at no cost.  Keep your eyes and ears open at work and offer to work an extra hour in appreciation of a donated item.  At many workplaces, you may be able to get free boxes or containers for your long-term supplies.  Cardboard isn’t ideal since it breaks down when wet but some companies will dispose of plastic containers.  Be first in line if those become available.  You can also recruit family and friends to check out their workplaces for free items as well which they can pass on to you. You may get items that you can sell for cash or items that can go directly into your kits. 
If you happen to have a higher-priced item you can sell (like furniture), you can still use these same sites to post a free ad to sell the item (make sure to include photos) and then pocket the cash for your emergency kits.  

Important note: Use caution when allowing others into your home.  Try to always have another person present when selling an item that requires a home visit.  Exercise common sense when contacting strangers.  Use the buddy system so you are never alone during the transaction.

Your strategy for step 4 is to buy low and sell high.  Get as much money as you can for the items your selling and then re-use the funds by buying used gear or by spending prudently at stores like Walmart and Costco.  However, hands down, the best place for new disaster supplies are Dollar stores. 

Here's a great Dollar store article with photos and uses for all of the amazing disaster supplies you can get there and at the lowest price possible.  This is a fun way to buy low.  Let's say you can only get $20 for that ancient flip-phone in your junk drawer.  That will buy 20 items for your kits at the Dollar store!

So, gather up your unwanted and unneeded items and post them online.  Sell them and then take the cash and head to your nearest Dollar store.  You'll be shocked at what you can get for a few bucks and your emergency kits will thank you.

Cheers for now,

P.S. My sincere apologies for the longer-than-expected gap between blogs.  I had company visiting and also unexpectedly ended up hosting two air cadets from Britain on an exchange program. 

Don't forget to subscribe to this blog or you can follow it by providing your email address.  Also, please feel free to follow my Twitter feed @Plan_Prep_Live  and like my Facebook company page, both of which cover disaster incidents around the world.  And, if we haven't already connected, then here's my LinkedIn profile. 

© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Step 3: Reward Yourself

The day I met Tom Glass dawned like any other typical prairie summer day.  Not a hint of a cotton-ball cloud above but the temperature was rising quickly and, by our scheduled afternoon interview time, the sky had changed into an angry black mess.

End-of-the-world clouds boiled across the horizon as I arrived at the rural fairgrounds where I would interview Glass, a famous chuckwagon-racing cowboy and, now, movie stuntman and stunt car driver.  I congratulated myself on dressing appropriately for an interview that would take place in a dusty farm field.  Since I was on assignment for the Calgary Herald, a major daily newspaper, I did not want to be remembered as the "stupid reporter in high heels." 

As it turned out, feeling smug was my first mistake.

Pulling into a large area filled with motorhomes, horse trailers and Brontosaurus-sized trucks, I parked my car at about the same time that the radio reported four funnel clouds off in the distance.  With an eye on the sky, I checked my make-up and hair one last time and stepped out of my vehicle which was my second mistake.

At that instant, a dust devil hit me, engulfing me in a violent vortex of dirt, fairground garbage and undetermined organic matter (I'm pretty sure there were molecules of horse poop in there somewhere).  Like a giant flytrap, grass, debris and other unmentionables clung to my hair, make-up and lipstick while I hung on to my car's antenna because it was the only thing I could see.  Finally, the dust devil, feeling satisfied with its assault tactics, relented and moved off in search of a new victim.

Looking like I'd been roughed up by some school bullies, I made my way over to meet Glass.  My clothes were dishevelled and covered in a fine layer of dust.  Twigs and other icky stuff was stuck in my long hair.  I tried to pick the dirt off of my lipstick and brush the grit from my face but it's safe to say that I was sporting the freshly-sandblasted look.

Glass said nothing but offered to conduct the interview in his shiny black SUV which seemed like a good idea since I was fairly certain that other dust devils were still out there, hunting me.  Joanne, his wife of 18 years, was already inside, with every hair in place and looking gorgeous because, well, Mother Nature liked her.

When Glass opened the back door for me, I made a dive for the safety of the SUV, arriving head-first and with about as much grace as a hippo doing a belly flop into water.  The silence that followed was a tad awkward and, feeling the need to explain, I gathered up the tatters of my dignity, smiled brightly and simply stated "I guess I'm not a country girl."  They considered this for a moment, laughed and nodded understandingly.

The truth is that Mother Nature and I go way back and this was not the first skirmish.  Many years earlier, I had been flying a plane back alone to my local airport when I was hit, mid air, with a suspected microburst.  I went from flying straight and level, in a perfect sky without a wisp of cloud in sight, to standing on one wingtip in a heartbeat.  Now, as scary as that sounds, it was fairly easy to recover from (my commercial pilot's test ride was a lot worse) and I was left with nothing stuck to my lipstick so, all things considered, it was a win-win.

But, unfortunately, Mother Nature was not done with me.  A few years after the Glass interview incident, I was sitting outside on a mall bench, minding my own business and waiting for my ride to pick me up, when I noticed a dust devil forming in the parking lot.  The day was beautiful, sunny and warm, I had my favorite pair of sunglasses on and my toes were delighted to be in sandals after a long winter.

Feeling quite safe, I watched the dust devil grow in size and become more visible as it skipped across the mall lot, picking up winter gravel, dead leaves and dirt as it went.  Suddenly, it veered straight for me and quickly overcame me in a maelstrom of filth.  I swear I am not making this up.  I put my head down, closed my eyes and did the only thing any self-respecting woman would do – I protected my lipstick.

Somewhat shockingly, as it whirled around me, I actually felt myself lift off a little from the bench.  Then, it was over and the dust devil danced its way across the lot and dissipated.  I sat there, stunned, and wondered if I had imagined the sense of weightlessness.  I checked my condition and, in addition to the usual crap stuck to me, I discovered that my sandals now had a layer of dirt between the bottom of my feet and the footbed of each sandal.  Wow, I had actually lifted up enough for the entire inside of the sandal to be covered in debris which, later, made walking interesting.

My ride showed up shortly thereafter, took one look at me and asked "what happened to you?!" 

"Tornado magnet," I answered.

To be honest, my relationship with Mother Nature has been pretty shaky for most of my life and it all began when a bat flew into my hair when I was 12 years old.  Needless to say, there was a lot of flapping and thrashing about – mostly on my part.  There may have been some screaming as well.

That incident set the tone for what was to come.  Birds dive bomb me, little furry woodland creatures think I'm a Disney princess and coming running straight for me and I'm not too thrilled about my role as the insect whisperer either. 

In what may have been one of her better moments, Mother Nature chose an airshow as the setting for my next humiliation.  I had taken no more than a dozen steps onto the field when a giant grasshopper leaped upwards and landed on my forehead, dangling from my bangs while hanging on for dear life.  This put him squarely at eye level so that all I could see were grasshopper legs and underbelly.  Again, I am not making this up.

Since my hands were full with a lawn chair and backpack, my options for swatting were limited and I was also frozen in mid-stride.  The grasshopper, perhaps sensing a meltdown coming, jumped off but not before first using my forehead as a launching pad.

Later on, when I went to work in government and began my career in disaster communications, Mother Nature upped the ante significantly as we battled over wildfires, windstorms, flooding, earthquakes and more.  But, she taught me some valuable lessons – mainly to be prepared for anything including, but not limited to, predatory dust devils, invisible microbursts and mutant Ninja grasshoppers.

STEP 3: Reward Yourself

If you've been following the Prep for Free steps, then you're going to particularly like this one.  It's simple and fun!  Here's how to do it using the many shopping reward cards out there.  If you don't already have a wallet full of them, then it's time to sign up for all that you can get.

Option 1: Redeem your reward points for a cash discount on your purchase and then use those savings for items that you'll need to buy for your emergency kits.  As an example, if you redeem your points for $10 off your everyday purchase, take the $10 you've saved and add it to your growing preparedness piggy bank.  Or you can spend it right away on a preparedness item if it costs $10 or less.  If you're shopping used items on Kijiji, Craigslist, Varage Sale or one of the many online free ad sites, then $10 can buy a lot.  If you live in a city with a Dollar store, these outlets are a great place to shop for emergency kit gear especially during camping season.

Option 2: Redeem your reward points for other gift cards.  Some programs, like Air Miles, allow you to redeem your points for other gift cards.  If you redeem for a fuel card, food card or entertainment card, you can then deduct that amount from your regular budget and re-direct the funds to your preparedness efforts.  For example, using this option, a $50 gas card would allow you to divert $50 out of your day-to-day budget for preparedness items.

Option 3: Redeem your reward points for tangible items like camping equipment and so much more.  It's amazing what items are offered on certain programs.  In a previous blog, I talked about this LED lantern which I got for free through my reward points.  I've also used my points for binoculars, a telescope and a solar power panel like the one shown below.

No matter how you use them, your points can amount to significant free stuff for your emergency kits so go ahead and reward yourself.  You deserve to be prepared!

Next week, I'll be taking a break due to more travel to deliver corporate crisis communications training but please use that time to keep working though the Prep for Free program and I'll be back with step 4 soon!

Take care and thanks for reading,


Don't forget to subscribe to this blog or you can follow it by providing your email address.  Also, please feel free to follow my Twitter feed @Plan_Prep_Live  and like my Facebook company page, both of which cover disaster incidents around the world.  And, if we haven't already connected, then here's my LinkedIn profile. 

© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle