The storm that hit Westport over the weekend provides many opportunities to see how technology can play a part in getting life back to normal.
To start with, our first responders - police, fire, EMS, and town officials - have and need good communications equipment in order to coordinate their efforts. Typically radios are used, since they don't rely on wires strung on poles that can be harmed by falling trees.
Along with communications equipment, our first responders are typically equipped with portable machines such as chain saws, "jaws of life," pumps, fans and other items that will help in an emergency. Note that most of these items are self-sufficient and do not require any backups or outside support to operate.
Such is the case with how many of our homes need to be in such an emergency.
Start with telephones in our homes. While most homes still have a telephone provided by AT&T or similar "land line" companies and these phones will continue to operate without electricity, if we rely on a phone that plugs into a power outlet, say a cordless phone, when the power goes out, so will our phones.
I keep an old wall-mounted princess phone in my basement that's plugged directly into the incoming AT&T line. Tha way, if we lose power, we'll still be able to make phone calls on a land line.
If you receive your telephone service over the Internet, whether it be through Cablevision, Vonage, Ooma, or some other company, your Internet service should continue even during a power outage. Again, there are items in your home that will need power during an outage, such as your cable modem, router, switch, etc. This is where an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) -- essentially a battery -- can come in handy. Unfortunately, an UPS typically lasts a few hours, not the days or week that some people in Westport will be experiencing this week.
Neither of the above communications services will survive a tree falling on the lines that feed them to your house. This is where mobile phones come in handy. As mobile phones are wireless, as long as the cell towers stay intact, you should have phone service. Note that most cell towers have their own power generation backup systems that should allow them to continue operating without outside power for days.
Also keep in mind that many mobile phones have Internet access and can provide Internet access for one or more computers through what's called "tethering," if needed. Some new mobile phones even have built-in WiFi to provide Internet service to multiple computers simultaneously.
But communications is only one step in surviving a storm such as we experienced over the weekend.
It's always a good idea to have a few days supply of food and water on hand. Our first selectman, Gordon Joseloff, has recommended that houses have on hand two weeks of food and water.
Beyond that, having sufficient batteries and flashlights as well as required prescription medications and first aid supplies can help.
If your circumstances allow, having an emergency generator to power your home can be a wise investment.
Houses nowadays have far more electrical requirements than in years past. Beyond the obvious power requirements of refrigerators and freezers, most heaters require electricity to run pumps, motors and blowers. In the case of flooding, one needs power to run a sump pump to keep a basement dry. If you receive your water from a well, you'll need electricity to pump the water out. In our home, we have a pump to move sewage up a hill to the city sewer.
Hooking up a generator is not as simple as one would hope. If this is something you want to do, I suggest involving a qualified electrician and installer.
From what I've seen about this and other natural disasters, the good news is that during these times, we see the best and most generous of care from others. To those who have lost power or whose homes have been damaged, friends and neighbors have been very willing to offer assistance in any way possible.
To all who have helped and who continue to help our town and region recover, a heartfelt thank you.
Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 March 2010.