How will you and your family communicate if there is a local disaster or regional crisis? We’ve become so accustomed to phones, especially cell phones, that we almost never give a second thought to how we might communicate if phone service were disrupted.
It’s more common now to bury phone landlines, which makes them less likely to be disrupted during a storm. However, disruption can still occur. As many in our area might remember, several years ago a vandal cut the buried phone lines in Moorhead and left thousands without any landline phone service for several days.
All phone systems—cell or land—can become overwhelmed with calls if there is a disaster, making it difficult or impossible for you to contact others. So now is the time to establish a plan for communicating during an emergency.
Start with a plan
Your plan should start with a list of who you will contact in case of a disaster: children, parents, close relatives, neighbors and close friends. The main purpose of this calling list is to make sure of everyone’s location after a disaster. Once you know both where everyone is and that they are safe, then you will need to determine if you or anyone in your group needs emergency assistance or needs to evacuate.
Everyone in your emergency plan should have the same contact list so that if the ability to call is limited, just a few calls will put everyone in touch with everyone else. You should have at least one or two people on the list who live out of state. If local service is overwhelmed, it will be helpful to have people outside of your disaster area who are aware of what’s going on and what kind of help you may need.
Cell Phones or Land Lines?
Today less than half the population uses landlines at all. Typically, landlines have been the most reliable method of communication during an disaster. But having a mobile, always-accessible phone is a good thing. In fact cell phones can be very useful during an emergency.
Cell phones can be very useful in an emergency. They can provide on-the-spot information.There are dozens of apps that are helpful during an emergency, such as this one from FEMA that gives you weather alerts and helps you locate emergency services and shelter during a disaster. Cell phones are also valuable if you’re in a situation where you are unable to communicate with emergency personnel or relatives. Note your ICE (In Case of Emergency) contacts in your contact list so that emergency personnel know who to contact if you are unable to tell them. Make sure the kids also have your number stored in their phones as ICE as well. So for example, their contacts would read “ICE Mom” or “ICE Dad”.
The FCC has tips to help you make the most of your cell phone during an emergency Most smart phones today have an FM chip that allows you to hear FM channels. The FCC recommends that you activate the FM chip to enable you to receive broadcast news.
Some people will have a cell phone to use just in case of emergencies. If you’re considering a cell phone for emergency use only, a pay-as-you-go or subscription phone is your best deal. Some programs (such as Tracfone) can cost as little as $20 for both the phone and service for one year.
But cell phones are also vulnerable during a power outage or other crisis. Your biggest challenge will be keeping your phone charged during a power outage. You can prepare by having a solar- or crank-powered battery charger.
But power loss is not the cell phones’ only vulnerability. Transmitting towers can be damaged or destroyed during ice and wind storms or tornadoes. Even if the transmission towers continue to function, often they are jammed with overuse. During the attacks on 9-11, calls wouldn’t go through because the system so overloaded. During Hurricane Katrina, 70% of the towers went down and were down for days. If your only means of communication is a cell phone, you may find yourself severely hampered during a disaster.
What about landlines?
Landlines can also be vulnerable during a disaster. Some newer types of phone service, such as Voice over IP (VoIP), require power to operate, while the older phone lines (usually copper, usually buried) are less likely to be disrupted. Also, be sure to have at least one corded phone in your house, as cordless phones will not work during a power outage.
You will need to consider what your needs might be during a disasters and decide if what you have is adequate. This is the month to prepare for an extended power outage.
Hopefully your cell and landline phones will work and not be too overwhelmed with calls. But if the disaster makes them inoperable or unusable, what are your options?
Satellite phones are one option to consider. They can be a little expensive but they offer a couple of advantages. First, they don’t rely on local phone and cell networks, so they’re less likely to be affected by an increase in call volume. Second, they operate independently of the cellphone network and so will still be operational even when cell phones aren’t.
The Family Radio Service (FRS) and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) are both designed for short-distance two-way communication. They are similar to walkie-talkies and have a range of somewhere between 5 to 25 miles (if you have a relatively unimpeded line of sight) or about 1 mile in an urban setting.
Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio is a short distance radio communications. It has a range of 2-5 miles but with a larger antenna and signal boosters, you can get a range of 20 miles. During a power outage they can operate with a 12 volt car battery.
HAM radios have been around for ages and are the most reliable (and widespread) communication in times of disaster. You will need to pass a test for the required license. As a HAM radio operator you can listen to and communicate with people throughout the world, making this a fun hobby and an entertaining family activity. With little power and a minimal amount of equipment, you will be able to communicate with other HAM operators, even when cell towers and other forms of communication have failed. That means that in an emergency, you will be able to stay informed on what’s going on locally, nationally, and worldwide.
Hopefully you and your family will find a system that works well with your budget and your needs so that if (when) a disaster strikes, you are not left without any means to communicate.