Preparing for Disaster with goTenna Mesh: Why 911 Is a Fragile Link


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Texting to 911 via SMS has come up in several threads recently. It’s problematic for several reasons beyond the simple fact that federal policy discourages the use of text and other applications like Skype from being used for such purposes.

The primary technical problem for such use varies by the technology, but the common thread is that 911 service is predicated on identifying the “caller” in most 911 systems. That’s an issue with anything coming across the internet, unlike with phones, which 911 systems are designed around.

Since your goTenna Mesh is usually associated with a cell phone or cell device (a former cell phone that is currently without regular cell service), the phone or cell device can still be used to call 911 in an emergency. It’s native to all cell phones and even after cell service is no longer on the device, it remains capable of calling 911…if that’s what you really need.

Much of this discussion has been centered around the use of goTenna Mesh in large scale emergencies, specifically hurricanes. Thursday’s New York Times brought a disturbing article on exactly what happens when 911 systems crash under the onslaught of a hurricane: Lost in the Storm

The story makes it clear that thinking of goTenna Mesh as just a better way to contact 911 under such circumstances is a mistaken notion, even if it was technically possible in the relatively few 911 centers that currently support text messaging contacts for those who are hearing impaired. It’s about the tragic outcome of Harvey for one family in Houston. While better prepared with more resources than Puerto Rico was because of the historic neglect of emergency services on the island, Houston’s emergency planning failed its citizens disastrously, too.

Not every emergency situation is predictable or can even be anticipated. Hurricanes in and around the Gulf of Mexico don’t fit that category, as they are a known and rather predictable hazard. You can and should prepare for them IN ADVANCE, because if you’re thinking about a future storm right now in the present, it would seem to call for taking action now in many ways: food, water, power, etc. That includes getting something to serve as a reliable local communication system for your family, neighbors, local businesses and even as a supplement to 911 and radio systems for local government.

Yes, this article is worrisome and disturbing, especially if you aren’t familiar with the way emergency services work, as well as how they can fail when a situation exceeds the capabilities and resources available. The time to address those worries is before the last minute scramble after a hurricane warning is issued. For other less predictable emergencies, the time to prepare is always now, as those of us who live in the tornado alley we call the Midwest or the shaky ground of the earthquake-prone West.

The goTenna Mesh is inherently designed to facilitate the power of existing relationships and to help build new relationships that could be vital links for survival. The story of the Houston family turns around communications and its failure as they relied on their cell phones and the 911 system. Carefully marshaling their limited power, the phones kept them in touch but never brought help close enough until too late. There was some limited help available nearby, because the family involved had lived there for several generations, but it was often just out of reach, ill-timed, or unorganized so that it didn’t offer an alternative to hoping 911 would come through.

It’s hard to say exactly how a mesh network could’ve changed the results here, but alternatives would have been available to people who desperately needed them, ones that would have been close by. It is clear that communications are vital, not a low priority when it comes to preparedness for large scale disasters such as Havey’s impact on Houston.

Could mesh networks provide. a ready alternative to centralized emergency services? It too soon, most likely, to discuss replacement of centralized services like 911. But these systems rely on layers of communication and there’s already a place, really a vital need for mesh networks to connect people at the local level. As the NY Times article related, in such events a partial or even comprehensive failure of centralized communication and emergency services system is nearly inevitable. That’s where decentralized, people-powered mesh networks such as goTenna Mesh provides hold a essential role.

When should such a need be addressed? The sooner the better, if you anticipate a storm in your future. The learning curve is easy and the install of the app is equally low stress, but the time to do this isn’t when you’re worrying about what hour the storm will arrive. Plus your mesh devices can be handily and productively put to use for lots of non-emergency purposes in your household, good practice for using the mesh for when the chips are down.

It’s also a good time to reach out to where you can give or receive help from outside the close circle of your kin, your neighbors. Americans can be very mobile, so you may not know them yet, but a discussion of vital mutual interests like what to do when the water rises is generally a worthwhile endeavor that people can find mutual motivation to pursue.

Then there are other issues that come up away from the coast. How about the tow company in an area prone to winter storms, whose radio repeater could go down when the power dies? Or a local rescue team that needs to coordinate better when working calls to rescues in the wilderness? Or the farmers who need to depend on each other, no matter what the weather?

It’s not just those out in the boondocks who needs such a system. I live in an urban area with a Big Ten university in town. Yet, I suffered without power for more than a week after a Valentine’s Day ice storm in 1990. Tornadoes can also similarly affect parts of a community. Inland flooding creates similar mass evacuation scenarios as hurricanes do.

All share a common element. They are better prepared for now rather than in the face of disaster. Preparing now for what could happen later is how to best work goTenna Mesh into your plans.