There was a lot of buzz in the office today—our first morning back after Hurricane Sandy—about how folks fared during the storm. It was surprising to hear how most people were prepared with food and water, but completely unprepared for the effects of a long term power outage. We are, after all, becoming quite dependent on modern technology to communicate. Perhaps that is why I was shocked to hear that one of my coworkers actually used a hand-powered transistor radio to find out if schools would be closed.
Over 80% of the world’s population has a mobile phone. There are 91.4 million smartphones in the U.S. alone. Apple recently reported it has already sold 100 million iPads worldwide. We use these devices every day to play games, order pizza, and figure out which wine goes with dinner—but perhaps most importantly, they connect us to the world. We don’t think twice about how simple it is to blast text, photo, and video messages to all corners of the world in the blink of an eye.
Even with the dramatic rise of these mobile devices, television is definitely not going away. In fact, mobile usage supplements TV viewing more often than not, with people spending 52% of their television-viewing time concurrently using tablets or smartphones. Together, we use these technologies to know what’s happening in the world around us. So what are we to do when an emergency strikes and these things we use every day are suddenly useless?
Most emergency kits include flashlights, nonperishable foods, and plenty of water. But what isn’t often included is the one thing a modern-day American might need: a charged mobile device. In a time where we’re so connected, it almost seems as though this is the most important item. Mobile phones and tablets can last for a fair amount of time, and unlike laptops, can utilize nearby cell towers to access the web.
When storms knock out television, Internet, phone, and power (which also brings down radio unless you have batteries), the only available form of electronic communication we’re used to is a mobile device—either personally by phone or text, or to the masses via social media sites.
In many cases, this is helpful. They can be used not only to get updated information, but also to keep family and friends informed of our safety especially when all they may be seeing is the most dramatic effects from the media. How are you going to find out if schools are closed? When to report to work? When to expect the power back? Is the water okay to drink?
But with this citizens army of news sources comes the danger of misinformation. During Hurricane Sandy, a wide range of fake images spreads like wildfire, exaggerating the effects of the storm and causing fear to those in unaffected areas. How do you avoid this?
In 2010, when Boston experienced a water main break that left the city without potable drinking water, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority used a simple website to communicate updates to the public. The minimalistic text and design enabled information to be shared quickly, and because the agency discouraged the reposting of information in favor of linking to that single source, it was easy to quickly verify the accuracy of communications. When RIM’s Blackberry network went down in 2011, they did the same thing.
Unfortunately, even the batteries don’t last forever. Reports are coming in from New York City that people are camped outside of coffee shops to access Wi-Fi, and many people throughout New England have resorted to charging their devices in their vehicles. And it’s only been one day without power. It’s clear that we’re in an age where we depend on modern communication.
What will you do when disaster strikes, your mobile devices lose their juice, and you have no way to charge it back up? It happens. Like my coworker, you may surprise yourself by using a hand-cranked radio. Sometimes it may be as simple as looking out the window (screen), or finding someone with a working landline to call a hotline. In some cases, you may have absolutely no way of communicating with the outside world, and will just have to sit around and wait for the storm to pass. This means a whole different kind of FaceTime we're quickly forgetting: talking face to face with other people, even members of your own family!
Think about this next time you’re preparing an emergency kit. Do you really have everything you need to survive?