Heed the voice of experience on 'cell-phone readiness' during wildfire season

Verizon this morning sent a press release offering "cell phone wildfire preparedness tips" to mark today's beginning of "brush clearance inspections" in Los Angeles. The advice struck me as rather obvious -- like TV meteorologists here in Massachusetts urging us not to drive during blizzards -- and I was gearing up to write something snarky when two thoughts dawned: I know nothing about wildfires ... and, I do know someone who is an expert on both wildfires and gadgets.

So I fired off an e-mail to Jim Forbes, a retired tech editor with ties to Network World who lives in Escondido, Calif., near San Diego. That area saw horrific wildfires last year that drove Forbes from his home and into a shelter from where he filed a number of enlightening "fireblogging" reports about how technology and networks fared during the crisis.

The bottom line of Jim's reply to me: "Verizon is on the right track here, Paul."

(Snark gun goes back in the holster.)

You can read Verizon's list of tips here, but Jim's much more detailed and entertaining version -- which includes a description of what he's got geared up to protect his home -- follows (and should hold for just about any type of disaster that might chase you from your home):

Create a communications plan in advance of emergencies. Chose one person who doesn't live near you to be the point of contact for anyone who wants information about you and your family. Pick someone whose phone number is known to the people you want to keep updated.

Use voicemail on your home and wireless numbers to create and store a message that says: "We're fine, but we've been evacuated to a shelter. We don't know how long we'll be there. Please call my cousin Zebulon Grinhoff in Lizard Spit, Idaho, for more information. We're calling him every night with updates. And, please go to the Web site of our local newspaper, www.NorthCountyParakeetCageLiner.com for more information on the fire. We'll be in touch when we get back home. Bye."

Verizon suggests: "Forward your home phone calls to your wireless number if you have to evacuate." I don't agree with this since it ties up circuits.

Don't assume you can hit a cell tower from a church basement. Join the bats in the belfry to make that important daily call.

Do not sit out in your car or truck at the evacuation center and have lengthy conversations about the vibrant smoke-tinged sunsets out your window, or the brilliance of the fire light at the edge of the parking lot. ... Send brief text messages rather than making voice calls.

Verizon's right about the need to have additional charged batteries and car-charger adapters available. Beforehand, look into a simple portable solar charging system. Most car circuits turn off accessory power when the engine isn't running. A simple solar power charger can keep your batteries fully charged and doesn't burn the gasoline in your car or truck's tank.

Do take your portable computer and headset with you when you evacuate. Downloading and installing a VoIP application lets you stay in touch without tying up cell circuits. Use your portable computer and WiFi connections to update your Web page or send e-mails to people concerned about your situation. Remember, your friends on the East Coast don't have your experience with wildfires or earthquakes, so be understanding if they seem really freaked out.

Do you think that last part may have been directed at me? Here's more about how Forbes has prepared his home for this year's fire season.

My lawn is green and my orchard has a nice 100-foot fire break on its circumference. It's already very dry down here so I expect a wicked and very long fire season.

We're prepared. I've got 150 pounds of water pressure on two lines outside the house regulator's circuit, two 200-foot hose packs, a variety of fire nozzles for the hose, nice blades on my lawn tractor for clearing everything down to bare mineral earth and fully charged backup power here at the house (Solar and six-volt L16 deep discharge batteries).

I've been through two wild-assed wildfires since we moved down here and about 20 growing up in Azusa, Calif.

As I said, heed the voice of experience on this one, not some snarky blogger.

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