emergency preparedness

How to Communicate Without a Phone or Internet in a Disaster

Nadia TamaraA Little Bit of Everything, Bug Out Bags, Earthquake Preparedness, Emergency Preparedness, Evacuation, Power Outage, Wilderness Survival, Winter Preparedness 11 Comments

emergency preparedness

Have you ever been unable to get a hold of someone and started worrying needlessly for hours just to find out they were safe all along? Let’s imagine an emergency situation when thousands of people are trying to contact their loved ones, but to no avail. Realistically, in a post-disaster scenario phone lines will be down, internet connection might be slow or unavailable. The devastating effects of the disaster alone will give us a greater reason to panic and worry if we cannot reach our family or friends.

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. If you’re lost, Google will help you find your way. If you’re in need of help, you can call 911 plus an unlimited amount of people. If you want to check up on someone without contacting them directly, you can visit their social media profiles. Communication is accessible even throughout many remote parts of the world. But no matter where you live, when a disaster occurs there is no guarantee that our typical forms of communication will be available. 

I remember driving to the Home Depot in Chino Hills, CA one afternoon in July of 2008. The minute I parked the car, a mild 5.4 earthquake shook the ground. It wasn’t too strong but I was taken off guard and startled. Stores in the area were closed immediately due to items falling off the shelves and since I couldn’t shop, I took the opportunity to call my family to make sure they were alright. It became impossible for my call to go through. At the time I didn't understand but it probably occurred because telecommunication networks fail when there’s a rapid increase in call volume. It took me couple hours to finally be able to make a call. 

Natural disasters aren’t the only times mobile networks can fail, in fact they can go down during big sporting events and terrorists attack. No matter the situation however, it’s imperative that we have a family plan already in place to make re-unification after a disaster feasible and avoid any unnecessary worry in the meantime.

Let’s look at different scenarios and how you can best communicate with your loved ones in each situation.

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no cell phone and no internet

Okay, let's look at this unfortunate scenario. You forgot your phone at home and you finally found someone willing to lend you their phone, but there is no WiFi available. What can you do?

  • 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 commonly 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 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/ 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 not an option. Satellite calls are expensive and traceable. In some countries, like Chad and 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. This only requires muscle power so don't worry if the electricity is out.
  • Phone booths / Landline phones: Landline phones are much more reliable than cell phone networks. Believe it or not, there are also a few phone booths in large cities and perhaps small towns too. Make sure you always keep change in your pocket and have an idea of which landline or phone booth you have accessible to near your work and home.

no cell phone but yes internet

If your cell data doesn’t work, try connecting to WiFi. But what good is WiFi if your cell phone is out of battery?

  • iPad / 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. If you’re anticipating a natural disaster, 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 right away is stored in a battery and can be used later without having to start another fire.

yes cell phone but no internet

This might be the most likely scenario. Depending on the scale of the disaster, telecommunication systems might be useless. For many it will feel like the end of the world to be without WiFi but now add a natural disaster to the equation. What options do you have here?

  • FireChat: FireChat is a free app that allows users to send text messages and images without internet connection. No mobile signal or data plan is required for FireChat to work, so long that both communicating parties have the app installed. It’s especially helpful in times of emergencies because conversations are not limited to the contacts in your friend’s lists but are extended to all users within a 30 foot radius. Chats can be started based on popular hashtags so if you find a hashtag related to the natural disaster you’re facing, you can message all the users in the same conversation. It works on both Apple and Android phones but installation requires mobile data or WiFi. The problem with FireChat is that there is no privacy or security in messaging, so it’s vital that no personal information gets shared while messaging on the app.

  • The Serval Project: Serval Mesh (for Android) and Serval Chat (for iOS) are apps similar to FireChat. The main difference is that communication over the Serval apps are secure. The downside is that the iOS version is not available yet although it was supposed to have been released in 2017. 

  • 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.

yes cell phone and yes internet

This is the scenario we hope for, always! You'll be very blessed if you have a working phone and WiFi or cell data after a disaster. Even though your phone might not function as easily as before, you have a few options to communicate with your loved ones. 

  • Text messaging: Since texting uses a lot less bandwidth than a phone call,  texts might get sent through before long before you can successfully 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, explaining where you are and or where you’re planning to go next. Some people prefer to keep these details private especially over social media. Set up a family code (before a disaster occurs) which can be used to let those people know where you are and where you will be headed. If you’re on social media, follow the local weather channel and 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 over WiFi connections. Pick one of these apps to have in common with your emergency contacts and make 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.

  • 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.

Before a disaster occurs, have at least two communication options available so your means of contacting relatives and loved ones will not be interrupted when the mobile network fails.

Become prepared ahead of time

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. Do yourself and your family the favor of preparing an Emergency Family Plan now and save yourself from unneeded fear and worry in the future. Being at peace in difficult times is priceless but hopefully we don’t have to learn this the hard way.

1. Identify safe meeting places

  • Consider different scenarios that might take place if an emergency occurs. Your children may be in school. You might be at work, in the city, or driving.
  • Identify a meeting place inside your home in case you need to take cover indoors.
  • Identify one meeting location near your home. In the event that you have to leave your home, pick a neighbor’s house or nearby park to meet at.

2. Plan evacuation routes in your home and neighborhood.

  • Identify one meeting location outside of your neighborhood. If you’re evacuated and can’t get back home, select a place everyone can meet in that is likely to be outside of evacuation lines.

3. Know the emergency policies of your children’s schools and relative’s elderly care centers.

  • Determine who should pick up the kids at school or attend to the elderly relative in case an emergency occurs.
  • Make arrangements ahead of time for the care of your pets since most evacuation shelters don’t accept animals.

4. Select one main point of contact for the entire group.

  • This person should be assigned the responsibility of organizing evacuation efforts, as well as reunification if the family becomes separated at any time.

5. Select one or two local contacts.

  • If the emergency is small, reach out to the local contacts without alarming the out-of-state contacts.

6. Select one or two out-of-county or out-of-state contacts.

  • If the emergency is large-scale, select a relative or friend that lives far enough away from you that it’s unlikely they will be affected by the disaster.

7. Distribute the emergency contact list to the people on the list.

  • Keep this list handy, such as in your wallet, your children’s backpack, your Bug Out Bag or your car.
  • Take a picture of this list to be kept on your phone or save the phone numbers in your phone’s contact list.
  • Leave this list near the landline phone in your house, if you have one. Otherwise, stick it on the side of the refrigerator.
  • Make sure caregivers and babysitters know your family’s emergency procedures and where the contact sheet is located.

8. Discuss and practice the emergency plans with each member of the 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.

Revisit your Emergency Family Plan every six to twelve months. Review and update phone numbers and other details.

I created an emergency contact form to help guide your family’s planning efforts. Download it below. 

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In Conclusion

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 because 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. 

I hope this was helpful for you. If I missed any important communication methods, post them in the comments!

Have you ever experienced a post-disaster situation where you had a difficult time reconnecting with your loved ones? How were you able to get a hold of them and reunite? Let me know in the comments below!

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Comments 11

  1. This is really helpful, you never know when a disaster or an emergency is just around the corner so it’s best to have back-up means of communication just in case. I’m planning on starting a warehouse of my own soon and I want to be sure anyone in the building will be safe in case of an emergency. I’ll be sure to get a few radios around the place. Since large buildings usually have radio dead spots I’ll look into hiring some indoor public safety coverage so that any emergency services will have radio coverage anywhere in the building. That way we won’t have to fear about our radios failing on us when we need them most.

  2. What are your thoughts on Signal Messenger App?

    My husband had just moved to Orange County a few months before that quake and got to experience it while washing his hands in a public men’s room lol

  3. Pingback: How To Prepare Your Business For Unexpected Power Outage – Business Fundas

  4. This was a great read. I had not heard of the apps that you mentioned. With the use of cellphone no one remembers phone numbers anymore. Keeping a contact list handy is a great plan.
    Thank you

  5. As a last resort, you can use a mirror (or two) to reflect sunlight to someone in the distance who can see the flashes in Morse Code. If you don’t have hours to spend to learn Morse Code, there’s an easier (but slower) code called Tap Code, which you can learn in a minute or two, as many soldiers have. You can send messages by flashing a mirror or piece of glass or even aluminum foil to reflect sunlight to someone in the distance, even miles away as long as they can see the flashes. Or flash a light at night. Or tap on a wall or even blink, any countable signals. To send the letter of a word, first tap (or flash) through the letters A F L Q V, stopping at the one which is before the letter you want to send (or the same as it), then pause, then tap through the alphabet from that point. For example, to send the word “HELP”, you tap twice (A F), pause, tap three times (F G H) and the receiver writes down the H. Then you tap once (A), pause, then tap five times ( A B C D E) and he writes down the E. Then you tap three times (A F L), pause, and tap once (L) and he writes down the L. Finally you tap three times (A F L), pause, and tap five times (L M N O P) and he writes down the P. You can use X for a period and Q for a question mark. Use the letter C instead of K: asc. If you make a mistake and need to start a word over, tap eight times. Sometimes people have even blinked secret messages in Tap Code!

  6. It’s good to know that you should keep a list of contact information handy for emergency situations when you might not have standard communication options. My brother wants to be more prepared for emergency situations that could occur, and he wants to invest in a satellite phone. I’ll pass this information along to him so that he can have a contact list prepared to use with that phone in the event of an emergency.

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