Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

What Is Your Family's Emergency Communications Plan?

By Dennis D. McDonald

I was reminded yesterday that it is important for families to have emergency communication plans. 

Number One Daughter called me early in the morning from her off-campus apartment in Blacksburg to tell me that she had just heard about a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus. I agreed with her she needed to stay put.

That initiated a series of emails and instant messages throughout the morning and occasional forays to the Virginia Tech web page which, as usually happens during situations like this, slowed to a crawl due to the increases in traffic. Cell phone service into and out of Blacksburg similarly slowed down. Number One Son, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech and now working in a Northern Virginia office park, was in constant email and text-messaging contact with his girl friend, a student in Blacksburg.

I moved downstairs from my office to be near a TV and watched CNN as the morning's horrors unfolded. I started receiving a barrage of phone calls and emails asking about Number One Daughter's status.

A related crisis had occurred on the first day of class last August. A shooter was loose on the Virginia Tech campus and my daughter spent the day at her apartment then, too. Again, instant messaging was the bridge.

It was different  back on 9/11 when I sat in my weekday apartment in Brooklyn and watched the Twin Towers burn  in Manhattan. Number One Son was in high school near the Pentagon. Number One Daughter was in high school in Georgetown in DC and needed to cross bridges -- and pass by the Pentagon -- to get back to home to Alexandria, Virginia. Cell phone circuits were overloaded so a dial up phone line in my apartment allowed me to access my email and (sort of) find out what was going on while the TV was on. (Thank goodness I had the dial-up phone line and knew how the built-in modem on my laptop worked. I'm not sure what I would do now if I had to use the modem, I've become so dependent on wireless internet service.)

So what does this say about communication? Several things:

  1. Everyone in the family should have a cell phone with numbers preprogrammed for all others. That sounds pretty basic but keep in mind the very old and the very young. It might not be a bad idea to make sure even senior members of the family who don't have cell phones  are given pay-a as-you-go phones just for use in an emergency. (This presumes they will know how to maintain and use the phone if it is needed). 
  2. Have email and web page addresses for all the organizations or institutions the family comes in contact with -- schools, churches, places of full and part time employment, etc. The more the merrier. Perhaps a secure remotely hosted book marking service might help -- if it is regularly maintained.
  3. Have names, addresses. phone numbers, email addresses, and web page URL's for all relatives, friends, and acquaintances. This includes MySpace and FaceBook pages if at all possible. Information spreads like wildfire during an emergency. You never know when you will need an alternate communication route to get to a loved one if the need arises -- assuming of course that you can at least look at web pages operated by a members only social networking service.
  4. Old folks: if someone starts using a tool like MySpace to post bulletin board information -- something that CNN was very quick to pick up on yesterday -- will you be able to participate?
  5. Young folks: do you have an email address that your friends and family can use in case your social networking platforms aren't accessible?
  6. If you run an institution and, God forbid, something awful happens, be prepared for the spike in network traffic as your web page -- which of course you will be regular updating from a secure off-site location, right? --  gets hit by orders of magnitude greater than normal traffic.
  7. Think about what might happen if wireless systems go down. If you use wireless phones and wireless Internet service in your home, do you have the ability to use a wired backup? If cell phone service dies, can you fall back on landline service for long distance voice?

The bottom line: have multiple communication channels available to reach family and friends, be ready to use multiple channels and social networking tools if necessary to enable pass-along communication, and keep these systems updated. And remember -- when disaster happens, think about all the different people who love you and tell them ASAP what your condition is.

For sure, I've left something out. If you'll add a comment below (or email me at I'll be happy to update and republish this list.

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