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