Keeping Connected When the Phones Are Down

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Emergency communications is perhaps one of the least talked about and overlooked aspects of emergency and disaster preparedness but as we shall see in this article it is indeed one of the most crucial to your survival and that of your loved ones.

Do Not Depend On Your Mobile Phone

Millions of people are becoming more and more reliant on smartphones for their primary and sometimes only means of communication which can be an extremely unwise decision. Anyone who is involved in prepping and survival would know the “2 is one and one is none” rule. The need for redundancies and multiple backups are drummed into visitors perusing prominent survival and prepping websites.

Statistics from the ACMA in 2011 show that 1 in 5 Australians had ditched their landline phone in favour of their smartphone as their primary means of communicating with friends, family, work and contacting emergency services.

You can’t always depend on your mobile phone. During disasters of any sort – be it a natural or man made one, phone towers will be down either from infrastructure damage or severe congestion caused by concerned people attempting to reach out to their loved ones and friends or trying to call home to say “I’m okay”.

During the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in which hijacked aircraft were flown into the two World Trade Centers and both buildings collapsed as a result of being rigged with explosives, almost the entire mobile phone network in New York failed.  Major communication issues were one of the single biggest difficulties that hampered rescue efforts and the ability for people to get in contact with loved ones. Since then mobile phone services have certainly improved by a long shot but this does not mean that mobile phone towers will not be congested or fail in a major emergency in today’s modern world.

The Huffington Post reports that during Hurricane Sandy (2012) mobile phone service in many areas failed and as a result,  thousands were left feeling helpless unable to communicate with loved ones or make emergency calls.

During the Boston Marathon bombings (2013), mobile phone services clogged due to hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempting to get through to friends and loved ones living, staying or working in Boston.

And these are just a few examples out of hundreds of others around the globe.

Here are some other reasons why your smartphone may be useless in a major emergency:

  • During situations involving explosive devices, authorities may temporarily disconnect mobile phone service in order to prevent detonation of further explosives (yes bombs can be triggered with mobile phones via signals transmitted).
  • In some cases, phone providers may even ask their customers to restrict calls in order to free up voice capacity for emergency responders and other authorities at the scene.
  • Electricity may be out for days and sometimes even weeks meaning phone towers will be relying on backup power which will run out.
  • Even if phone providers may have measures in place to increase tower capacity to handle the influx of calls, this will take some time to action.

However even if you’re unable to make calls, sending SMS, emails or posting status updates on social media (providing your have Internet access) may be a better option as they 1) use up less bandwidth than calls, 2) can be queued up and delivered as capacity becomes available and 3) are often the option that is least thought about meaning less people will be using it and hence less congestion.

 

Emergency Options

Solar/hand cranked radio – I know you can’t transmit on this to reach out to loved ones but a good emergency radio is a must for receiving accurate emergency information from radio stations. There are many options out there to choose from. Most run on batteries but obviously batteries run out eventually so that’s why I prefer solar powered or hand cranked  ones. Some radios even come with built-in lights, SOS strobes and compasses. If you’re having trouble choosing the right radio, I suggest you check out my review of the ETON Scorpion II All-In-One Emergency Radio / Power Bank / Solar Charger & Crank Torch here.

Scanners – They can be quite pricey but are worth it. The beauty about owning a scanner is that you are one step ahead of everyone else and can hear emergency agencies responding to a disaster and listen in on situation reports (SITREPS) being made to the dispatch centre as the incident unfolds. Countless times I’ve heard requests for public warning messages to be issued for a particular emergency. That buys me time by at least 10-15 minutes as it takes a while for the message to be relayed onto the appropriate media departments then actioned. In other words I can notify everyone else I know in the area to get out earlier before the rest of the public receives the warning message to leave.  If you don’t really want to fork out the cash to purchase a scanner,  you can install an app on your iPhone that will give you access to frequencies used by emergency services such as police (be aware that most are encrypted these days), ambulance, fire and rescue and Coast Guard. If you want a recommendation for a good scanner, check out our review of the Uniden Bearcat BCD325P2 TrunkTracker V Digital Scanner.

Landline phone -Despite the fact that many people think the good ‘ol trusty landline phone is a thing of the past, it will still work even when the power is out as it does not require batteries for operation. So before you think about chucking out your old landline phone in order to replace it with a modern cordless one, think again – it might just save the day in an emergency.

UHF CB Radio is another great and relatively affordable option that we highly recommend. Range can be anywhere from 5-125 km as this is dependent upon and impacted by the topographic and atmospheric conditions as well as the usage of repeaters (which extend the length of your signal) and the wattage and antenna height of your unit.  UHF signals travel via “line-of-sight” and obstacles such as solid structures or natural barriers (mountains, hills etc.) may prevent the signal from getting out.  No individual paid license is required for usage as it was effectively replaced by the Radiocommunications (Citizens Band Radio Stations) Class Licence that essentially comes with the radio unit when your purchase it. The Class License governs how UHF CB can and can’t be used. Channels 5 and 35 are legally allocated channels for emergency use only.

The ACMA defines an emergency in the Radiocommunications (Interpretation) Determination 2000, Schedule 1:

emergency signal means:

  1. a request for assistance; or
  2. a signal of distress; or
  3. a message that is related to a request for assistance or a signal of distress.

Therefore this means that in a genuine emergency you are permitted to use Channel 5 to make an emergency call for help. Please keep in mind that the emergency channel is not monitored 24/7 but in some areas are monitored by volunteer groups or individuals trained to handle these types of call.

For other non-emergency related comms, there are 77 channels to choose from. You can select one that is not used in your area as your “group channel” for communications among your family and friends.

Keep several handhelds handy, install a mobile unit in your vehicle and a base station in your house.

For more info on choosing the best UHF CB radio, check out our article here.

Satellite Phones used to be very expensive to own and operate but now usage costs have dropped dramatically. Sat phones rely on satellites orbiting the earth which is heaps more reliable than phone towers. The only downside is that they don’t really work when used indoors.

Amateur (Ham) Radio has a long history of being used to relay and gather crucial information during natural disasters such as 9/11 to the 2011 Queensland Floods in Australia. A Ham Radio is perhaps the most important emergency communications device that you could have in an emergency. You will need a ham license in order to operate on amateur frequencies though but the test isn’t that hard at all – many 8 year olds are even getting their licenses!

Most ham operators are more than willing to lend a hand in a disaster and make great people to contact to relay important information to you. In fact some ham radio emergency communications groups are part of state disaster management plans which means they can be called upon by authorities to provide emergency communications for a particular crisis and will setup shop and assist in relaying information in and out of the affected area(s).

It’s a good idea to keep a list of local and state frequencies handy so that you can tune into them in an emergency to be informed.

Establishing an Emergency Communications Plan

  • Make a list of people and phone numbers you will contact in an emergency.  Keep this list handy by your landline phone, in your car, on your smartphone and in your emergency kit.
  • This emergency list should contain phone numbers, email addresses, and even social media networks.
  • If possible, establish 1 local contact and 2-3 out of state contacts who can relay information to you in the event you’re unable to access it for yourself. These could be relatives or close friends.  Agree on these contacts before a disaster strike so that your family members can use them as a point of contact during a time of crisis.
  • You main point of contact can then co-ordinate either evacuation efforts or efforts to reunite members of your family or prepper group.
  • Keep a list of important phone numbers handy near your landline phone.
  • Once the disaster strikes and you have relocated to a safe place, one of your top priorities should be to make contact with your emergency point of contact and inform them of the situation, your whereabouts and what you intend to do next. Keep your contact updated with information whenever your situation changes. This contact can then relay this information onto others on your emergency contacts list.

It’s not hard to imagine the sheer panic and mayhem during and in the aftermath of a disaster as people desperately try to get hold of their loved ones just to find out if they’re ok. It can be heart-wrenching to not know if your loved ones are dead or alive. Being without a means of finding out vital information, reaching out to loved ones and calling for emergency help can leave you feeling helpless and in the dark so to speak. With alternative means of gathering and communicating information and most importantly of all, a plan, you can feel assured that your family or group will stay connected in a time of crisis.

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