Let’s imagine a post-disaster scenario where the infrastructure is destroyed, telephone lines are down, your phone’s data connection is slow or nonexistent and the effects of the disaster are devastating. Every effort to get in touch with your spouse, your kids at school, your elderly parents or grandparents, or any one else at this point has become seemingly impossible. Scary thought, right?
I think we take for granted how much we use our phones and how valuable they are to us. They’re basically our lifeline to the outside world.
Under normal circumstances, when you’re lost, Google or Siri helps you find your way. When you’re in need of help, you can either call 911 or dial the number of a trusted person. When you want to check up on someone without contacting them directly, you can take a peek at their social media profiles and usually get the full scoop of their life.
Staying in connection with one another is a vital part of our lives but when a disaster occurs there is no guarantee that our typical forms of communication will be available.
I remember driving to the Home Depot one afternoon in the summer of 2008. The minute I parked the car, a mild 5.4 earthquake rattled the ground. It wasn’t too strong but I was taken off guard and startled. Stores in the area closed immediately due to safety inspections because some items had fallen off the shelves. Since I couldn’t go inside the store, I took the opportunity to call my family to make sure they were alright. Little did I know, the phone lines were overwhelmed which made it impossible for my call to go through. It took nearly two hours until my phone was able to call out and receive incoming calls again.
Last summer, a similar thing happened except there was no disaster. I, along with another 35,000+ people, attended an event. Being in a stadium with thousands of people using their cell phones to flood their social media with Instagram selfies and Snapchat stories resulted in a significant period of time when my phone almost stopped working— perhaps I wasn’t the only one affected but I noticed immediately that my calls wouldn’t go through, my cell data would stall and not load any pages, and only texts would go through but with a slight delay. Once the event was over, and we left the vicinity, my phone started to work without a problem.
This is only a glimpse of what we may experience during a large scale disaster. Can you imagine going two hours without hearing from your loved ones when a flash flood or tornado has torn through your community?
We need to have a family communication and reunification plan which will give us peace of mind and help us avoid unnecessary panic when we can’t get in touch with our family and friends.There are many ways to communicate, whether there is or isn’t internet and whether you have a phone or not. Let’s discuss those options.
When you have a cell phone and internet
- Text messaging: Since texting uses a lot less bandwidth than a phone call, you may be able to get a text sent through before you can call somebody.
- Social Media: Facebook and other social media profiles provide the ability to “mark yourself safe” during a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Update your social media profiles thoroughly. Some people prefer to keep their details private. Set up a family code to let loved ones know where you are and where you will be headed. If you’re using social media, follow the weather channel as well as the local and federal emergency organizations to get updated information.
- Instant Messaging: WhatsApp, Viber and Skype are free apps that can send and receive text messages, videos, and calls for free over WiFi connections. Pick one of these apps to have in common with your emergency contacts and create a group in the app. If mobile networks are down, messaging on these apps will be a reliable way to contact everyone privately at the same time.
- E-mail: E-mail is a very effective means of communication, especially for those who might not understand how smartphones work.
- The Red Cross Safe and Well Program: The American Red Cross has created a community page where you can list yourself as “safe and well” and leave a message for the people who look up your name. It’s a secure way to privately share basic information. You can register or search for registrants here.
When you have a cell phone but no internet
- FireChat: FireChat is a free app that allows users to send text messages and images without internet connection. Both communicating parties must have the app installed. It works on both Apple and Android phones but downloading the app requires mobile data or WiFi. The problem with FireChat is that there are no privacy or security features, so it’s vital that no personal information gets shared while messaging on the app.
- The Serval Project: Serval Mesh (for Android) is an app similar to FireChat. The main difference is that communication over the Serval app is secure. Unfortunately, this app is not available in iOS, so it limits your ability to connect with iOS users.
- GoTenna: GoTenna creates a two-way radio system between mobile phones. It uses Bluetooth to connect iOS and Android devices all over the world by a wireless mesh network.
When you don’t have a cell phone but have internet
- Tablet / Laptop: When your phone is dead, use whatever other means of technology you have available. Try to keep at least one of your devices charged at all times.
- Solar powered charger: If all your devices are running low on power it’s wise to have a backup solar charger. It’s good practice to make sure your devices are always fully charged.
- BioLite: No sun? No problem! This cool charger is engineered to produce electricity through a fire while cooking your food at the same time. The energy that isn’t used is stored in the battery and can be used later without having to start another fire.
When you don’t have a cell phone or internet
- Amateur radio: The HAM radio is one of the best options for effective post-disaster communication. It is used by FEMA to communicate vital information during emergencies and is also used in shelters, hospitals, police stations, and fire departments. It is regulated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and any person using a HAM radio must have a valid license. Amateur radios can be used to communicate with people across the world.
- Other radios: There are many other radio options which may fit your needs. The CB radio is used often by truckers. The FRS and GMRS radios are sometimes used by families and sometimes businesses. Most of these options are regulated by the FCC and require licenses to be operational. The best option is still a HAM radio but it might be more cost-effective for families to purchase one of these other options.
- Satellite phone: Satellite phones work during disasters because they rely on satellites rather than telecommunication networks. If your cell is out of range or a natural disaster destroys the phone lines or antennas, a satellite phone will work without interruption. Businesses are advised to keep a satellite phone for such emergencies but keep in mind that it should only be used when other communication means are unavailable. Satellite calls are expensive and traceable. In some countries, like China, it’s illegal to own a satellite phone, so check with your country’s laws before deciding to purchase one.
- Hand crank radio: Although you won’t be able to communicate through a hand cranked radio, they are useful when you need to stay updated with the news and weather in regard to the emergency you’re in, without the use of power.
- Phone booths / Landline phones: Landline phones are much more reliable than cell phone networks and there are still a few phone booths around. Make sure you always keep change in your pocket and have an idea of which landline or phone booth you have accessible near your work and home.
Formulate your communication and reunification plan
There is no better way to assure the communication and reunification of your loved ones than to establish a plan together. Things will become very messy if you’re up against a high-stress situation without a plan.
Having a family communication plan is not isolated for disaster events alone. In fact, having a plan when traveling to a different state or country (especially if you don’t speak the language) is crucial.
Gather your family for a meeting! You will want to discuss possible scenarios (such as you and/or your spouse being at work, the kids being in school, etc) and how you plan to get in touch with each other when an emergency occurs. Use the following templates for guidance.
The goal is to come up with several alternate means of communication (think BEST and WORST case scenario) so that you can stay in touch with your loved ones even if mobile networks fail temporarily.
1. Identify safe meeting or reunification places
If your family becomes separated or you’re not together at the time of a disaster, determine the best places to meet. Be location specific!
TIP 1: Develop a family “whistle tune” and a reply in case anyone gets lost. This is especially useful at the grocery store or when you’re within close range.
TIP 2: If you’re traveling anywhere and get lost from the person you’re traveling with, agree to meet up at the last location where you were together before you got separated.
2. Learn the emergency policies and protocols at the following locations
3. Identify primary points of contact
* It’s important that you let these individuals know that you’re using them as a primary point of contact.
4. Put together an emergency contact list
Use the following template for keeping all your emergency numbers in one place. Make copies of the list and distribute them to the appropriate people (including caregivers and babysitters, or at least let them know where it can be found).
Keep the list handy, such as in your wallet, your children's backpack, your grab-and-go bag, your car, and next to your landline phone if you have one. You can even take a photo of the list with your phone to ensure it stays with you all the time.
Get to know your neighbors
This is an important step. Whether you live in a house or an apartment building, you should get to know the people who live closest to you.
People with special needs and those who don’t use social media may not know the status of a developing storm or disaster. It could save their life to have a person like yourself give them a call and let them know what’s going on. Having a person look out for the wellbeing of a neighbor is invaluable.
Pick an afternoon when you know most of your neighbors will be home, such as an afternoon during the week or a Saturday. On that day, knock on doors and introduce yourself to your neighbors. Tell them that you’re working on your preparedness plans and would like to build a community that can work together when an emergency occurs.
Be sure to get:
- Their name
- Their best contact phone number and their second best (if applicable)
- Their address
- Any specific needs they have, such as mobility issues, hearing or visual impairment, or language barriers (English as a second language). Be sure to ask them if they may need assistance during a mandatory evacuation.
Below you will find a template where you can write down all of this information.
Finally, highlight the people who would be the most critical to contact during an emergency. Even if you’re unable to help them at the time of a disaster, you can provide the name and contact information you have to law enforcement officers.
Practice, practice, practice!
Discuss and practice the emergency plans with your family.
Children are quick learners but we can’t always anticipate how they will behave under emergencies. Practice drills with your kids so it becomes muscle memory and when something actually occurs, they will be equipped to respond well and not allow fear to empower their actions.
Like in most situations, things might not turn out the way we want or expect them to. Detailing and practicing one plan might not be enough depending on the complexity of your situation. It might be wise to have one or two back-up plans in case the first or second don’t work out.
While we may not be in control of disasters or how our mobile phones respond to such events, we can certainly be prepared with other means of getting a hold of our loved ones without the unnecessary stress of not knowing their whereabouts.
Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are mostly unpredictable yet inevitable. It should become our priority to learn the best communication methods that are not limited to our smartphones since mobile telecommunication networks are not reliable in mass catastrophes. To help our families survive and reunite quickly, practice the steps outlined above and develop your own family response procedures.
- Revisit your Family Communication and Reunification Plan every six to twelve months.
- Review and update phone numbers and other details as needed.