Sunday, September 13, 2015

How #valleyfire shows us that Twitter needs semantics and tweet expiration

There is a recurring problem with Twitter as an information source in disasters, in that, even when you are using the "live" feed of tweets (i.e. reverse chronological order) versus the "prioritized" tweets, you get old information keep popping up in the feed as people discover older tweets and retweet them

This is really obvious in the current Valley Fire in California. As of the time this post is being written, the current data shows 40,000 acres burned. But we keep seeing retweets of information from last night about it hitting 10,000 or 25,000 acres. At best, you see recent and old information juxtaposed, as in (62.5 square miles = 40,000 acres):

At worst, you just see the old information keep being retweeted.

I think the solution is for tweets to in general have more semantic metadata attached, but specifically for it to be possible for time-critical tweets to be issued with an expiration date and time at which point the information is considered stale. More advanced would be a "this tweet supercedes this previous tweet" relationship. This metadata would filter through retweets, etc.

Not sure if Twitter will do this though. Perhaps there is room more simply for automated filtering of old information in Twitter clients. Another simple fix would be to be able to have a reverse-chronological listing by time of original tweet, not retweet.

California Valley Fire goes to 40,000 acres in hours (#valleyfire)

Possibly one of the fastest growing wildfires ever, the Valley Fire in California started early yesterday afternoon as a small plume of smoke in the forests of Lake County. Within a few hours, the rapidly growing fire was being watched by residents of nearby Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake. By early evening evacuation orders were in place for these two communities, and the fire had grown to 10,000 acres. By this morning, it seems that the fire has grown to 40,000 acres and these two communities have been completely consumed by fire.

All of this highlights the importance of being ready to evacuate your home in minutes; of planning out multiple evacuation routes; and in thinking ahead in a chaotic situation.

You can find out more on the fire at:

Twitter: #valleyfire
California CALFIRE
Valley Fire Numbers and Info on Dropbox
Google Map of all California Wildfires

News outlets: ABC7, SFGate, Fox40

Monday, July 27, 2015

Evaluating tools for use in emergency situations

As a researcher in a technology related discipline, EMT, and hobbyist in radio communications and technology, a lot of technological "stuff" goes through my hands. I have been thinking a lot recently about what differentiates the technological tools that I end up going back to again and again, and that I would trust in an emergency from the rest.

Here are three factors that are clearly important for me:

First, Reliability and Robustness. This is the one that is most obvious, and is probably over-played, particularly by manufacturers justifying inflated prices becuase their device can withstand a forty-foot drop or submersion in water. But, in an emergency situation, you do want the best chance possible that your tool will work just as it always has, and will not flake out on you. It is interesting to note that reliability and robustness tend to be at odds with flexibility. A good example is my hiking GPS - a Garmin Rino 650. It only does one thing - show and track my location on a map - but it does that very well, and it always works. It always operates the same way when I turn it on, it always finds the satellites quickly, and it always shows the information in the same, simple way. Plus it's built like a rubber brick. In contrast, the navigation app on my smartphone is much more flexible - I can do all kinds of cool downloads of different kinds of maps, overlay traffic updates, find the nearest pizza store and so on - but it is not reliable or robust: sometimes the app requires updates before I can get it to run; sometimes the internet connection doesn't work; sometimes the app freezes or crashes. And if my phone gets wet, it's toast. 

Second, Intuitiveness. Intuitive means that it works exactly as you’d expect, that working with it is straightforward even in a high stress situation. It means you spend your time thinking about what you are doing with the tool, rather than the tool itself. For electronic devices, that is sadly a rather rare property. A stark example here is given by two two-way radios I own: a Baofeng UV-5R (a super cheap, but surprisingly good chinese VHF and UHF radio), and a Racal 25 (a once expensive VHF radio used for military and wildland fire operations). Both radios are field programmable, meaning you can enter in the frequencies from the radio instead of with a computer. The Baofeng is super radio in some ways, but how to program it is almost impossible to remember, even in a low-stress environment. Conversely, the Racal just seems simply and cleanly designed to solve the problem, and frequencies can be entered and changed without even a glance at an instruction manual. 

Third, disposability. This means I don't care too much if it gets scratched, or even ultimately broken, in the line of duty. This is why some of the "highest end" stuff simply doesn't make the cut even if it has the best specs - I'm never really going to want to take a $2,000 radio (that I paid for with my own money, at least!) into a rough situation. 

So what other factors are there? Please leave any suggestions in the comments!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Grassroots emergency management - a new how-to guide

The last few years have seen an amazing shift in how information is shared in our everyday lives, and also in disaster situations. We're just starting to understand the impact of social media, websites, smartphones and other new technologies (for example, through the Social Media for Emergency Management (SMEM) community. But navigating it all is hard - for emergency management professionals, and even more so for the general public who are not used to thinking about disasters daily. Further, some of the tools used in emergency management, like hazard analysis and exercise planning can be adapted for individuals, to understand the risks they face, and how what resources they would use to help them if different kinds of events happen. So one of my passions is "grassroots emergency management" - enabling individuals, families, and small communities to do their own emergency management.

To this extent, I've created a new low cost eBook and associated website called Surviving Disasters in a Global Technology Age ( This is really meant as a "how to" guide for individuals and families to begin their own process of emergency planning. The guide includes chapters on disaster psychology - understanding situational awareness and how mental states play into it; disaster planning - not just having a "go kit" but doing hazard analysis, mitigation, and tabletop exercises for a home; infrastructure independent technologies - practically covering a host of technologies less familiar to our modern lifestyle but which could be critical "when the lights go out" - from shortwave and mediumwave PEP radio stations through weather radios, FRS/GMRS and GPS trackers; online resources and smartphone apps including crisis mapping, using social media, news aggregation tools, and apps; and finally how people can join digital volunteer communities such as Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs).

Obviously I can't cover everything, but my hope is that the book and website can be a "one stop" starter guide to get members of communities thinking the right way about emergency planning and technology. I am also developing the website to include free resources - right now there is a list of links and resources in the above areas that are referenced in the book; I'm also developing tutorial videos to be used alongside the site and book (right now there is just one up there, on developing a personal hazard analysis).

Please take a look at and let me know if you think this would be useful in your community, how I could make it more useful, and any comments or questions you have!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The medium and the message

For a long time I have been thinking about alerts and warnings, and the problems associated with their use in severe weather, winter storms, homeland security, and so on. These are well documented - the fact that there is not a specific action associated with warnings, their meaning is occluded, people ignore them because of too many false alarms, confuse watches, warnings, and advisories, and so on.

I think the basic problem is that a status (warning, watch, alert, orange, red, advisory, whatever) is not a message - it is a medium. It is a vehicle to deliver information, versus the information itself. So our focus should be on getting the information to people, rather than getting the vehicle to people. A "winter storm warning" or a "tornado warning" has very little information content; the fact that there could be 9 inches of snow between 9am and 3pm, or that there is a tornado on the ground just entering the west of the county is information. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to respond in certain ways to the vehicles - "when there is a tornado warning, take cover!" rather than trying to persuade them to respond in certain ways to particular kinds of information - "if you get information that there is a tornado on the ground, heading your way..."

The reason I think this is important now is social media. With social media, we have the capacity to choose to deliver formal vehicles, or actual information. I believe actual information, presented informally, is usually more - well, informative. Compare the following tweets:
A tornado warning has been issued for Boobah County! Take Cover Now!
A winter storm watch is in effect for Foo County!
Spotters have reported tornado 25 miles west of Nowheresville, moving east - take cover now if in path!
We could get hit by a late snowstorm tomorrow - up to 12 inches starting around noon, lasting till 7pm. Still lots of uncertainty in prediction though.
See what I mean? So a warning, alert, advisory, or whatever, is a trigger to put some information out on Twitter or Facebook or by text message - but think about putting out the actual information, rather than simply transmitting the trigger.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In defense of the dumb phone

Until January of this year, I was an avid iPhone user, but then my iPhone 4 died, after becoming terminally ill six months earlier after a water splash accident. Rather than replace it immediately, I decided to experiment with using a "dumb phone" for a while to see how it went. I decided to go for a Samsung Factor (left) on the Boost network, costing a total of $9.99 for the phone, then $10 every 3 months for a pay-as-you-go top-up to keep my account active. I was surprised by how much I liked the phone - it is small, light, and critically importantly the battery will last up to a week without a charge - my iPhone battery was down to near zero at the end of each day. In addition, for use in emergencies the physical dial pad is much more intuitive than trying to find a keypad on a smartphone to dial 911. I have since supplemented my phone with an android Samsung Transform Ultra smartphone that I picked up on clearance, do not have service for, but which works beautifully on any WiFi network. It gives me all the regular smartphone functionality including making calls with Talkatone and a Google Voice number (although I wouldn't rely on this in an emergency). The final piece of the puzzle is a Virgin Mobile Mifi 2000 that I picked up again on clearance for $20, and which gives me a flexible mobile wifi hotspot for $5/day any time I need it on the go.

But the real lesson in all of this is that for less than $50 a year and an initial outlay of $10, you can own a phone that in an emergency situation, or an ongoing power outage, will let you make calls, send texts, and dial 911 cleanly and simply. Even better, get one that works on a different network than your regular phone, to give you some redundancy.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Radio communications in widespread disasters

Below are some notes on radio communications in "SHTF" style disasters for a new class I am running on informatics in disasters and emergency response. I'm posting it here both in case it's useful for others, and also to solicit comments and feedback, and anything that might be missing?


To receive local VHF, UHF and 800MHz frequencies directly, you will need a scanner. Many public safety entities are now on digital P25 networks, which means you need a more expensive digital scanner. Recommended scanners include the Uniden Home PatrolBCD396XTand BCD996XT, and the GRE PSR500. A much cheaper option, when the internet is working, is to use one of the online scanner feeds, especially those from Broadcastify. These feeds are also available through a variety of iPhone and Android apps, such as Scanner911. Some agencies are also making feeds available through walkie talkie apps such as Zello.

Most commercial medium and short wave radio stations broadcast using regular AM. However most of the government, NGO and amateur frequencies active in disasters use Single Side Band (SSB - USB or LSB). To receive all of these frequencies you will need a radio that is capable of receiving medium wave, and short wave SSB. One of the best is the Grundig Satellit 750

VHF, UHF and 800MHz local frequencies

You can find lots of information on active local emergency service VHF, UHF and 800MHz frequencies that will likely be active in disasters, on the RadioReference website. Note in particular that many counties have amateur radio users active on VHF and UHF in emergencies, operating under the ARES and RACES organizational frameworks. Many nationally used emergency and public safety interoperability frequencies are described in the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG). Another important source of information are theNOAA All Hazards radio frequencies. Weather alert radios monitor these frequencies for alert tones, or they can be monitored directly. Under normal circumstances, they broadcast weather forecasts, alerts and conditions, but they will also transmit a variety of general emergency alert messages. A list of frequencies used in your area and alert tone codes can be found on the NOAA All Hazards website
NOAA 1, 162.400
NOAA 2, 162.425
NOAA 3, 162.450
NOAA 4, 162.475
NOAA 5, 162.500
NOAA 6, 162.525
NOAA 7, 162.550

Medium Wave PEP Radio Stations

PEP (Primary Entry Point) radio stations are battle-hardened commercial radio stations, usually in the medium wave (AM) band, that serve as initial entry points for national Emergency Alert System traffic.They must have a backup generator for 30 days on the air, along with various other stringent requirements, so in a widespread disaster situation they could be vital information sources if local infrastructure is down. Find your nearest Primary Entry Point Medium Wave radio stations on the PEP Map. For reference, the 33 PEP stations are:
KALL 700 Herriman UT (50,000 W day/1000 W night)
KBOI 670 Kuna ID (50,000 W)
KCBS 740 Novato CA (50,000 W)
KERR 750 Polson MT (50,000 day/1000 night) 
KFLT 830 Tucson AZ (50,000 day/1000 night)
KFQD 750 Anchorage AK (50,000 W)
KFWB 980 Los Angeles CA (5000 W)
KFYR 550 Meneken ND (5000 W)
KIRO 710 Vashon WA (50,000 W)
KKOB 770 Albuquerque NM (50,000 W)
KKOH 780 Reno NV (50,000 W)
KOA 850 Parker CO (50,000 W)
KTRH 740 Dayton TX (50,000 W)
KTWO 1030 Casper WY (50,000 W)
WABC 770 New York NY (50,000 W)
WBAP 820 Mansfield TX (50,000 W)
WBAL 1090 Baltimore MD (50,000 W)
WBZ 1030 Boston MA (50,000 W)
WCCO 830 Minneapolis/St Paul MN (50,000 W)
WCOS FM 97.5 Columbia SC (100,000 W)
WHAM 1180 Rochester NY (50,000 W)
WHB 810 Kansas City KS (50,000 day/5000 night)
WKAQ 580 Catano PR (10,000 W)
WLS 890 Chicago IL (50,000 W)
WLW 700 Cincinnati OH (50,000 W)
WMAC 940 Macon GA (50,000 day/10,000 night)
WQDR FM 94.7 Raleigh NC (100,000 W)
WRXL FM 102.1 Richmond VA (20,000 W)
WSM 650 Nashville TN (50,000 W)
WSTA 1340 St Thomas VI (1000 W)
WTAM 1100 Cleveland OH (50,000 W)
WWL 870 New Orleans LA (50,000 W)
WYGM 740 Clermont FL (50,000 W)

Short Wave Government, NGO and Amateur Stations

NIST time stations. NIST stations (our nearest is WWV in Colorado) broadcast 24 hours a day with a voice announcement of the time, on the minute, and "pips" for every second. They are a good way to test propagation in different bands, as well as seeing if the stations are "alive" in a very widespread disaster:
NIST WWV AM 2500, 5000, 10000, 15000, 20000
ARRL amateur radio emergency frequencies. The American Amateur Radio League (ARRL) runs emergency bulletins on the hour during widespread disaster events, from its W1AW station. At other times, general interest bulletins are broadcast daily at 02:45 UT (9.45pm Eastern Time).
ARRL 80M, 3990 LSB
ARRL 40M, 7290 LSB
ARRL 20M, 14290 USB
ARRL 17M, 18160 USB
ARRL 15M, 21390 USB
ARRL 10M, 28590 USB
The amateur radio band plan defines how parts of the shortwave spectrum assigned for amateur radio use can be used. The following ranges of frequencies can be used for voice conversations, and may be utilized in emergencies
80M BAND, 3600-4000 LSB
40M BAND, 7125-7300 LSB
20M BAND, 14150-14350 USB
17M BAND, 18110-18168 USB
15M BAND, 21200-21450 USB
10M BAND, 28300-29700 USB
FEMA. FEMA runs disaster nets in emergencies for use by state and regional emergency managers. The primary frequencies are:
SHARESSHARES is a loose network of critical organizations and government agencies to share information in a disaster. SHARES is tested every Wednesday at 16:00 UT (11am Eastern Time)
Other Frequencies. The following other shortwave frequencies are also often used in disasters: