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Lighthouses still work

Growing up I spent many a summer tracking down lighthouses throughout the east coast with my family. We would spend hours upon hours in the back of our VW van poking each other and arguing while my dad would study map after map trying to find the next historic lighthouse. Needless to say, our house had several Thomas Kinkade paintings on the walls.

I have to admit, even for a hyper-active 12 year old, lighthouses were cool. I owe my father a debt of gratitude for having the vision to create educational vacations.

One of the best lighthouses I ever got to visit was in Hull, Massachusetts. The first lighthouse at the site was on a timy 3 acre island and was lit up for the first time in 1716. It was one of the only structures of its kind in the entire world at the time. It was America’s first lighthouse.

The lighthouse I visited replaced the first one on the same site in 1783 and is still the second oldest working lighthouse in the United States. Since my last visit in 1997, the lighthouse has now been automated but is still staffed by a civilian lighthouse keeper!

The reason for the lighthouse being erected at this location in Hull is because of the massive amount of shipwrecks and groundings in Boston Harbor which is to this day notoriously difficult to navigate and enter.

The beginnings of lighthouses stretch back to Egypt, where one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was a lighthouse. The first lighthouse in recorded history was Egypt’s Pharos of Alexandria. Built around 280 BC, the source of light was a huge open fire at its summit. As well as being the world’s first, it was also the tallest one ever built, standing a colossal 450 feet high.

Since we are discussing history, I want to take a moment to discuss another system of communication that was unique and effective.

Effective. That’s a word we use a lot but we rarely see solutions that are truly effective. Having just come from several trade shows and seeing the “latest and greatest” innovations in the response community, I have to admit that not many of the ideas appeared to be really effective but rather creative.

Effective communications have always been vital to military operations. By the mid-nineteenth century, modern weapons led to extended battlefields where the simple horns, drums, and flares of the past no longer sufficed. (I always wondered about the poor guy that was only given a drum on the battle field anyway).

Larger, more complex armies needed to communicate over larger and larger distances. The U.S. Army was spread over a vast continent, and the reality of geography meant the Army needed a means of rapid, long-distance communication. Thus the United States Army became the first army in the world to establish a separate communications branch.

Albert James Myer, an Army doctor, first conceived the idea of a separate, trained professional military signal service. He proposed that the Army use his visual communications system, called “Wigwag”, while serving as a medical officer in Texas in 1856. When the Army adopted his system on June 21, 1860, the Signal Corps was born with Myer as the first, and at that time only, Signal Officer.

With flags for daytime signaling and torches at night, Myer first used his visual signaling system in New Mexico during the 1860-1861 Navajo expedition. Wigwag’s combat test occurred early in the Civil War in June of 1861, when the system was used to direct the fire of a harbor battery at Fort Calhoun against the Confederate positions. In 1863, Congress authorized a regular Signal Corps for the duration of the war. Some 2,900 officers and enlisted men served in the Civil War Signal Corps.

The Wigwag system relied on line of sight. Soldiers had to establish relay stations in sight of each other.

After the war, the use of the telegraph grew as fast as the expanding nation and the “wig-wag” went away.

Let’s jet ahead to a tornado in modern America. Since what I am going to discuss is common, I will not focus on a single incident but will draw a picture of ANY incident that many of you in the response world will recognize.

It is moments before dusk and the tornado has just brought absolute chaos to your town. Debris is everywhere, common landmarks are disguised or gone. Street signs are nowhere to be found and traffic lights are out. Over the next several hours this chaos has to become organized and as orderly as possible if searches are to be performed and lives are to be saved. Initial assessments cannot be executed amidst the traffic that has seemingly followed the storm.

For a town where 80% of the vehicles are totaled, there seems to be a lot of vehicle traffic. Law enforcement has set themselves at crucial intersections but are finding that they cannot handle the sheer numbers of people wanting to know where to go.

Incoming responders not familiar with the town are seeking staging areas, qualified volunteers, area doctors and nurses are coming in driving personal vehicles to offer help, ambulances from the neighboring county are flowing in.

We need a lighthouse. Maybe a guy waving flags. Maybe both.

Here is a question I was asked dozens of times this past two weeks by responders and emergency managers from around the country:

How do we communicate?

Surrounded by high-tech communication gadgets on conference exhibit floors, the answer was still pretty simple and I was ready with an answer.

History makes sense. Your tornado-torn town is no different than Boston Harbor or a Civil War battlefield, in fact, they may all three look quite similar.

Use lights. Bright ones.

Several years ago we were attempting to designate areas for the triage of mass casualty in the field. We had our FoxFury Nomad 360’s which provided more than enough lighting to operate, but there was no way to utilize them as directional signals. In a moment of CREATIVITY, we created an opportunity for EFFICIENCY by cutting the short sleeves off of t-shirts. Blue sleeves, red sleeves, green sleeves and yellow sleeves. By sliding the sleeves over the lights we suddenly created muster points, gathering locations that were easily recognizable and could be seen at great distance.

It did not take long before FoxFury created their Nomad 360 Color Bands, and it did not take us much longer to figure out how to use them even more.

Now, with the ability to erect a lighthouse in under 10 seconds and change its color in an additional 6 seconds, order begins to enter and overcome the chaos.

“We are with Herschel County EMS…where do you want us?”

“Continue down this road, watch for debris and don’t stop until you see the flashing blue light. Turn right and go to the second flashing blue light and you will see the other ambulances!”

How about this one…

“We’re a trained chainsaw team from a church about 60 miles from here.”

“Turn left right here and follow the street to the flashing orange lights (there are three of them) and when you get to the third light turn right into the parking lot and you will see our volunteer intake tent.”


“We are leaving town. Our house is gone and we need to just get our children to their Aunt’s house. Is there a safe way to get to the highway?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I am sorry about your home. See this flashing green light? If you head south here and just keep following the green lights, it will take you the back to the highway on a route we have already cleared!”

Getting the picture?

When it comes to communication, the lighthouse/wig-wag concept still works because they were created to provide guidance when things were chaotic, dark, confusing, difficult to navigate and when there was no other source of direction.

Because it has been so many years of using the FoxFury lights in the field, I had forgotten how important they could be for communication, but these past two weeks really reminded me of how effective this system was.

Communication during and immediately after a disaster situation is a vital component of response and recovery. Effective communication connects first responders, support systems, and family members with the communities and individuals immersed in the disaster.

In the aftermath of a disaster, there is no time to teach, no time to explain, no time to educate. The time for all of that has passed. This system created by FoxFury Lighting Solutions is an immediate, efficient way of communicating and bringing order to chaos.

Because of the practical aspects of such a system, I have been inspired to write a few more blogs on how lighting can and should be used as a means of communication and not just in disaster scenarios so watch for the next few blogs on this subject because I have much more to share.

While you are waiting, visit

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