Emergency Preparedness and Your Community

Organizing for possible emergencies

[Editor's note: Cathe originally wrote this article with Y2K in mind. Four years after Y2K it's still a good idea; just put "your most likely local disaster here" wherever you see Y2K.--Lynn]

No one says we have to be concerned about anyone but ourselves and you can choose that option. But if you decide you want to be part of your community, if nothing else, you'll be learning a lot more about the infrastructure of your community and the nature of your neighbors and that can't be all bad.

The First Meeting: What Do They Know?

You and your family are informed and prepared, now what? Start talking to your neighbors, preferably in person. On my street alone knowledge ranged from "planning for Armageddon" to "Y2K, what's that?" Don't overreact to the response you get, simply modify your outreach plan accordingly, taking differing personalities and knowledge into account.

If you want to try to convince people, start with the fact that the Red Cross and FEMA are both suggesting we prepare for it. Once you have 6 or more people who are interested, schedule a meeting for the next weekend. Be sure to invite children to this first meeting, they want to know, too! Make the agenda of this first meeting just "get to know each other and what people are or aren't doing." Plan to give a short talk about the subject and what YOU are doing and try to have some literature printed out to assist those that aren't as well-informed.

Tape record the meeting if possible or jot down notes. Things like "John at the corner house is a paramedic" and "JoEllen has a battery-operated television" is very useful information to have. I enjoy making candles and have let my neighbors know I have a large supply of them if they run out.

Share your skills and knowledge. Has everyone started a compost pile to reduce waste? Do some people have great food storage skills you can tap into? Who has CB or ham radio operation abilities? Who in the group will be working that weekend? What have employers been doing and sharing with their employees?

Write down what things you still have to learn about your area and any questions the group has. Encourage everyone to start reading or learning about the subject (or at least paying more attention to news), either from the library, newspapers, radio and television, or the internet. Read about past blackouts for information on human behavior; for example, the recent San Francisco blackout a few months ago could be a helpful learning experience.

The Second Meeting: What's Left to Find Out?

Your local fire department may have a program to inform their community on emergency preparedness. Call them to find out if they can come to your second neighborhood meeting. When there was such a meeting on our street, they discussed things such as area resources, power grids and wires and how they affect us (our electricity is underground), safety measures in our homes, neighborhood watch programs, local disaster concerns, and much more. It may be that your Police Department or other service has such a program, but at the very least they should be able to tell you who in your community offers such a service.

I recommend you try to have a local resource present local information at your second meeting. If that isn't possible, the second meeting should primarily be to find out what is "left to find out" about our community preparedness. Locating and researching community information can be quite daunting, so you probably won't want to do all the research yourself. Schedule this second meeting of the most interested parties, divide up the tasks, and set deadlines for information to be gathered and presented at the group's next meeting. Be ready to ask questions of companies and services such as:

"Are you prepared for Y2K?"

"How are you preparing for Y2K?"

"Do you have concerns about Y2K?"

"How will I be effected by [a power outage/sanitation problems/insert issue here]?"

"Where can I find more information about [the program/service/insert issue here] you offer for such an emergency?"

The following are some of the main areas where you may need or want more information. Be sure to ask them the above questions, if applicable, in addition to any questions your second meeting attendees may have mentioned. Don't forget that attitude is important, receiving information is much easier if your questionee knows you are trying to build awareness and reduce panic. Approach them in that way and they should be cooperative.

Food Supply: Check the websites of chain grocery stores. All that I checked had Y2K information available. Talk to your local grocery store managers and local farmers, are they stocking up or planning for Y2K (or late 1999 panic buying)? Have they asked their suppliers about their Y2K status? Be sure to remind them ,while you're face-to-face, to encourage food suppliers to label their products with easy-to-read expiration labels, not only the codes meant for computers.

Water: Call your local water department and find out if there are problems anticipated and leaflets for you to prepare for an emergency? Water purification and pumping should already being undergoing compliance testing. Find out what they suggest for the safe use of alternative sources of water.

Medical: The most medically-informed person in your group should contact hospitals and medical services, so that the right questions are asked. Some of them should be: What is your backup plan should the electricity go out? Is your equipment tested and compliant for Y2K? Are ambulances going to be functioning as normal? What happens if your computers aren't working and insurance and patient records aren't available, will patients be treated differently and, if so, in what ways?

Heating: Call your local gas company (or other heating service provider) and find out if there are problems anticipated and leaflets for you to prepare for an emergency.

Sanitation: Will there be garbage collection as normal? If they say yes, find out what happens if they are wrong. What should you do and how will you be charged? How does the sewage system work in your neighborhood? Are you all on septic or city service? Will wastewater backflow into your house if the gravity-fed sewage system shuts down? What should you do in your circumstance?

Other utilities: Natural gas, electricity, media (cable and radio), and other utilities will require similar questions as with water and sanitation. These local services may be compliant, so you'll also need to find out if their suppliers or other issues (like the electrical grid) have been factored in. Do they have handbooks or leaflets for safe use or turnoff instructions for their services?

Financial: Unless your financial institution is very small, it will be prepared for Y2K, not because it wanted to spend millions and millions doing so, but because it was essential and smart business to do so. However, it wouldn't hurt to check out the information flyers from your local banks or ask them their plans for late 1999 panic withdrawals and what they are planning for. The same goes for any company you do financial business with. There's a good chance that many of you also use the same company for your credit cards; find out if Y2K will effect their billing or services during an outage or computer malfunction.

Transportation: Unfortunately, it now looks like the FAA has less of a grip on the
Y2K issue than previously thought. (See the Y2K Newswire for the latest information: http://www.y2knewswire.com) However, even if they are able to achieve full compliance on their mission critical systems throughout the U.S., you should not count on smooth flying outside of the U.S. Pick the most knowledgeable or travelled of your group to question transportation officials, you will get more serious answers. Other transportation issues include buses, trains, ferrys, subways, and cruises. Don't forget to check on the city traffic lights. Are they date controlled?

Schools: Will the local schools be in session? Do they use PCs and have they been tested for compliance? Older Apple/Macintoshes (or date-driven software) may have some issues, see their Year 2000 website information. Will the local schools need assistance? Anyone in your group available for that?

Religious facilities: Many churches have already begun discussing Y2K. Have yours? What are their plans for preparedness and support services like shelters?

Shelters: Where are the shelters in your area? What do they offer and in what scenario? It's important to find out if they only shelter people during a natural disaster, like an earthquake or flood, and haven't planned to shelter anyone for Y2K eventualities. Or, they may even need Y2K awareness training from you! As with other non-profits, many of them rely on computer systems which are more likely to be out-of-date than your average business. What about your local camping or park facilities? Here on the west coast there are parks and beaches lined with barbecues, trashcans, showers, bathrooms or porta-pottys, firepits, etc. The same may be for your local mountains or camping spots.

Safety Services: Police and Fire Departments probably have figured out what systems are date dependent and won't start releasing convicts early that weekend. While that may seem extreme, it is important to know what contingency plans they do have. Will their phones be working? Will 911 work from cell phones? Will the police be patrolling in larger numbers or in certain areas? Will your home alarm be able to alert the Fire Department if there's a fire during a power outage? Is their equipment tested and compliant? How about city street lights, will they come on as normal or will they be effected by electrical outages or computer malfunctions?

Media and Education: Will your local radio, television, newspapers be operational during a power outage? What type of emergency preparedness information do they have? Will they be offering programs or informative articles on emergency or Y2K preparedness? Find out if there are programs planned and write down the details of what, when, and where for each. For example, our city offers an Adult Education class on Y2K Preparedness. Your community may also have such an offering.

Community Reviews: Search the web for community-based information on Y2K. A fast advanced search at Yahoo (keywords Y2K AND Santa AND Barbara) revealed several city resources I didn't know existed. Y2K Town Meetings, Plans, and Reviews were listed. I tried a few other cities and found the same for more cities than I expected. Check the list, sponsored by the Y2K Cassandra Project, at http://cassandraproject.org/grouprqst.html

Government: Find out what, if anything, your local government officials are planning with regard to Y2K. Come prepared with a set of questions designed to get to the core of the issues. Your local Chamber of Commerce may also have important information.

The Third Meeting: Discuss the Results of Your Research

At this third meeting you should focus on sharing the information everyone has learned. Did you find local websites of assistance, get phone numbers of key people, find flyers full of important information?

Collect the information in one location and discuss your experiences, good and bad. Did the local grocer make you feel like they had a grasp of the situation and were preparing in a sane way, or did they treat you like a lunatic, or something in between? Your neighbors will want to know this.Part of being in a community is responding to community issues and if you are treated poorly solely for asking questions, do you really want to depend on them or give them business now (let alone in an emergency)?

The Fourth Meeting: Putting Your Plan Into Action

You may want to invite your entire neighborhood to this final meeting and the most knowledgeable and prepared person should host it (probably you). Go over what your group learned and what outstanding issues you have. Go through the group doing a "what if" type of questioning.

What will you do when the power goes out? What will you do if there is no water pressure to flush the toilets? Where can the poor or homeless go for shelter or assistance? What are the evacuation plans should a disaster hit during this time? Where are alternative sources of water? Who in your group will require immediate medical assistance? If the gas is still working, how do you light the pilot light? Go over or demonstrate anything that isn't clear to everyone.

Does everyone feel like they are prepared enough? Are there issues that couldn't be resolved? Like the concern that medical facilities will not be available in the way we need them or that they won't accept your word that you have Medicare (if the computers are down).

Do people feel like they need more specific information?If you have a local university, consider calling the computer science or engineering department and see if they can spare a knowledgeable graduate student or professor who would be willing to speak with you or give you more detailed information. You will have to be the judge of whether the information provided during your meetings has been sufficient and if you need to research further and meet again.

Your neighborhood may want to discuss other community involvement issues, like a shared winter and spring garden, formation of a co-op, assigning certain households to certain tasks, like water storage at the home with the most room, or even taking in a family or two into your home if you have a fireplace and good supply of wood. Organizing a community or neighborhood can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Work within your abilities.

In the end...

Don't be shy about suggesting that others (I know YOU will be prepared) seek shelter if they're not prepared for an emergency. Don't encourage them to tough it out homebound if preparation wasn't done, especially in colder climates where heating will be life essential and not just a minor inconvenience.

We in the United States (especially the further west you are) will have a few hours of warning of what might or might not happen in the beginning of the new year, when the clocks start turning January 1, 2000: 12:00:01 in other countries. How many hours of advance warning will you have? Maybe that trip to Kauai is a good idea after all.

© 1999-2017 Cathe Gordon, used by permission.