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When 911 Goes Down – What you may not know about your cell phone

What if you needed to call 911 or emergency services and all circuits were busy, what would you do?  This is a scenario that plays out during every large disaster.  Sudden onset disasters can create a significant increase in calls to emergency services.  When the Boston bombings happened, so many calls were flooding in from friends and family that the networks became saturated.  Those who tried to call 911 could not get through.  Will your call be able to go through when you need it?   There are ways you can help improve communications not only for you and your family but for others who are trying to reach emergency services.  So what are the best disaster communications tips?  Being cell phone savvy will help you stay in communication longer. Here are some of the best tips for the public to help improve communications for everyone.  Make a pledge to help improve communications.  The decisions you make may save a life.

Disaster Communications Tips

Disaster Communications Tips

Pledge to Stay off Voice Networks: If you do not need emergency services, stay off all voice lines both landline and cellular use text messages, email or social media for non-emergency messaging.  Every voice call contributes to the network demands.  Your actions could save the lives of others.

Use Social Media: Ask your family to pledge to stay off voice calls during an emergency.  Make a plan to update your family on social media.  Leveraging social media can reach the most friends and family with one single text update.

Send “IMOK” text message:  Did you know 1,037 text messages will use the same network bandwidth as 1 voice call?  Try sending a brief message like “IMOK”.  Sending a quick text message to your friends will help reduce network calls. You may also want to post a brief note on social media that you will text “Uncle Joe” with an update later.  Then let Uncle Joe update your friends and family.  You could literally have hundreds of friends or family trying to call you or ask questions in the middle of your own personal disaster recovery.  Tag a point-person that will be your go-to for updates.  It’s a good idea to select a person who is outside of your immediate area.  Chances are those calls will go through easier.

Be brief:  If you must make a voice call and are able to get through, make it brief.  Others may need the phone line.  When disaster rescue and recovery are in progress, it’s not the right time for telling long stories on that voice call.  Place your call, then stay on point in the discussion and be brief.  Establish  a check-in time to call back again later.  This way you can turn off your cell phone to save battery.

Save your Battery:  The primary purpose of that phone is to make a call, you can’t do that if the battery is dead.  Turn off GPS, bluetooth and other apps not needed that drain the battery.  If you still have Wi-Fi, use it.  Wi-Fi drains far less battery than cellular service.  Android Authority also recommends turning off the wiggles. Vibration mode and keyboard sounds all expend precious battery life.  Screen resolution is the biggest battery hog on the newer big screen phones.  Turn the resolution down to lowest settings or, if the event looks like it may be long term.  Livewire  agrees on all of these actions for saving battery life on iPhones. One of the best ways to save your battery in an emergency is to place it in airplane mode or turn off the cell phone between scheduled check-in calls. Is your cell phone dead or lost?  Check your car, if you have an OnStar button in your car you may be able to reach emergency services or help through that method.

Plan check-in times with family.  Take a few moments today to discuss with your immediate family what time of the day you want to set for a call check-in time.  Discuss what should happen if they fail to check in, talk about who they should call if they cannot reach you.  FEMA has a great printable communication plan for parents and kids.  Fill it out today, and place a copy in your go-kits.  You can also scan it and store it in the cloud in case you become separated.

Texting for rescue.  After a tornado in Joplin, MO, a man was saved from under the rubble by texting a friend.  After an earthquake in Haiti, a woman was rescued from under the rubble by texting someone in Canada.  Knowing someone personally that you can text when disaster strikes could help increase your chances of survival. In the United States, on August 8, 2014 the FCC adopted new rules requiring text-to-911 services.  The rules require both telephone companies that provide text communications and certain Internet Protocol based text apps to be capable of handling text to 911 calls by December 31, 2014. However, today, most 911 centers are not yet enabled to receive text messages.To check to see if the 911 call center in your area supports text-to-911, download the FCC list of areas supporting available service (updated monthly). But even in areas where call centers accept text-to-911, existing voice-based 911 service is still the most reliable and preferred method of contact.  If you attempt to send a text to 911 where the service is not yet available, FCC rules require all wireless carriers and other text messaging providers to send an automatic “bounce-back” message that will advise you to contact emergency services by another means.  If circuits are busy, text messages may go through, so if you can’t send a text to 911, who would you text? Do you know your neighbor? Do you volunteer for your local fire department?  Maybe you should, most individuals are rescued by neighbors or friends who know them.

Add Police, Fire and Rescue numbers to your cell.   Gone are the days where we memorized phone numbers.  We’ve become accustomed to having our cell phone make that call for us.  Take a moment today to add your local emergency direct phone numbers into your phone.  If your local 911 call center network is having a circuit busy signal, you may be able to reach them through their regular phone lines.  It also is a good idea to write these numbers down and put them in your go kit, your wallet or your car glove box. Support your local fire department and ambulance services who can save your life because they need you today, you may need them tomorrow.

Keep old Android phones for emergencies.  Did you know that old Android phones that do not have a network plan or sim card may still be able to make an emergency call?  Even on a locked screen, emergency calls can be made.  Place one in your car’s glove box and one in your go-kit as an alternative emergency phone.

Forward your phone calls.  Is your cell phone lost or is it dying? Learn how to get your voicemail messages from another person’s phone.   Most services allow you to dial your own number and press the star or pound key to be prompted for your pass-code.  Or you could forward your phone calls to another phone number of a family, friend or even your google voice number.  This enables you to still receive your messages.  Google voice will deliver your voice messages to your email account where you can log in at a later date and get your messages.

Refresh your phone  When disaster knocks out communications, your phone will need to find the nearest cell tower.  All wireless network providers have a process to update cell phones to find newly built cell towers in your area automatically.   Typically this is called the “PRL, or preferred roaming list“. However you can manually make your phone refresh the list to find nearest cell towers.  This is helpful to do if your towers change locally, or if you travel. The steps you take to do this will vary depending on the brand of phone you use and the service provider. For example for Verizon you dial *228  .  It may also change depending on your device, for Sprint on the iPhone 6  On the keypad, dial ##873283# and tap the Call button.  Check with your provider before disaster to find out what steps you would need to take.

Learn more https://www.fcc.gov/news-events/blog/2011/09/21/fcc-and-fema-how-communicate-during-and-after-major-disaster 

About Humanity Road

Humanity Road is headquartered in Boydton, VA Mecklenburg County and is a top rated disaster response nonprofit that monitors social media to save lives. We support aid agencies and first responders during natural disaster and relay urgent needs to those who can respond. Hundreds of lives have been saved and tens of thousands of people have received aid because of supporters like you. Help us close the black hole of communications when disaster strikes.

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We are committed to improving disaster communications and you can help support that cause.  Visit www.humanityroad.org/donations to make a pledge today or you can text the word HUMANITY to 41444.  Thank you for your support