Cell phone use in emergencies – Hints and Tips to know
Having a cell phone during an emergency is EXTREMELY handy, and in my opinion one of the best things you can have on you during an emergency. Being able to contact others for help during an emergency situation is one of the fastest ways to resolve your crisis.
As more and more people move away from landlines, (the CDC studies find that almost half of all US households no longer have a landline), the technology needed for contacting emergency services with cell phones has been slow to catch up. So there are some things you need to be aware of when it comes to using your cell phone during a disaster.
Everyone knows that for an emergency, you simply dial 911. (The number is 112 in other parts of the world.) Smart phones today now have a feature allowing you to use that phone to dial 911 even when the screen and other features are locked.
But what happens if you are in a situation where you cannot get a cell signal? Or worse, your battery is about to die? Here are some hints and tips to help you out if you ever find yourself in this position.
The 411 on 911 and cell phones
Despite what you see on TV and in the movies, calling 911 on your cell phone does NOT give the dispatchers your exact location. According to a 2015 article in USA Today:
Today’s cellphone system does not automatically send location data when you dial 911. After the call comes in, the dispatcher’s computer transmits a digital request to the cellphone network seeking the phone’s location. The data exchange can take seconds or even minutes. Sometimes, it doesn’t return a location at all.
The video below explains how the current 911 system works with cell phones.
Keep in mind that sometimes, your 911 call can be rerouted to a different 911 system depending upon where the cell towers are located. This means you could be in one county, but the closest cell tower to you is in a different county, and will send your 911 call to that county’s 911 center. This could have deadly consequences as this story from USA Today illustrates.
When you call 911 from your cell phone, be sure to do the following:
- Tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency right away. If you are in a rural area, you might even include the county you are in. This way, 911 can route you to the correct 911 center should the cell towers send you to the wrong center
- If your wireless phone is not “initialized” (meaning you do not have a contract for service with a wireless service provider), and your emergency call gets disconnected, you must call the emergency operator back. This is because the operator does not have your telephone number and cannot contact you.
- In this case, give the 911 operator your number so that they can call you back
No cell coverage or signal
First, do NOT turn your phone off. No cell signal does NOT mean your phone is not communicating with the outside world. Your cell phone might show zero coverage because you have no coverage from YOUR service provider. That doesn’t mean another service provider is not in the area. And as required by federal law, network providers must transmit all 911 calls regardless of whether you use their service or not.
Next, cell phones send little digital “beeps” to the closest cell tower. Think of it as a breadcrumb. Although your cell service/coverage might be out, this “electronic breadcrumb” is so small and requires just the tiniest amount of energy to send out. Every time you try to call or text, your phone will send this signal out to the closest cell tower, even if the tower is not owned by your service provider.
These little digital beeps are of course recorded by the cell companies. While they might not be able to give your exact location, they can give rescuers an idea of where you are at and that you are still alive! Even if the tower does not belong to your cell provider, they will still pick up and record this “beep”.
Your phone leaves a data trail that is stored with the service provider and indicates the last time you attempted to place a call—even if the call didn’t go through. As you are moving through an area, your phone will switch from tower to tower. This can help emergency personnel know your general location even if you can’t get a signal on your cell phone. However, this can only work if emergency personnel know your service provider. Be sure to share this information with any emergency contacts and include it in your emergency kit.
Next, as I mentioned in my article 8 lessons learned during a real disaster, even if you are not able to call, you can still sometimes send and receive text messages. Text messages use a lot less bandwidth to send out than a phone call. So if the network is extremely congested (it ALWAYS is after a disaster) or partially damaged, you might still be able to get some (SMS) text messages out. I would NOT send multimedia texts (ie. pics) or group texts, as these obviously need more bandwidth. But a brief text to your emergency contact might be able to make it through.
Higher ground will improve your chances of finding a signal. RF (radio frequency) signals are line of sight. Things like hills, mountains, etc can block signals. In addition, man-made objects like metal and concrete buildings can also play havoc and deflect or distort RF waves. Walk into a metal building and see how your signal drops or is reduced.
So the higher and more clear your area, the better your chances of finding a signal.
For about $50, there is a low profile antenna (pictured here) you can attach to the roof of your vehicle that will boost your cell phone signal. This is great to have in very rural or mountainous areas.
Save the battery
In my article 5 tips you should do everyday to be prepared, I talk about always keeping your phone charged. But should disaster strike and your phone is starting to run low, keep these things in mind.
As I stated above, do NOT turn your phone off. You might be tempted to power your phone down between calls and texts to conserve battery, but this is actually a mistake. It takes a lot of battery power to power up your cell phone repeatedly. So unless you plan on going to sleep, I would keep the phone on and take these steps to stop the drain on your battery:
- Lower the brightness setting on your phone. The brighter the display, the more battery power it takes
- Turn off vibration when the phone rings. Vibrate uses more power than just the audible alert
- Turn off features like WiFi, bluetooth, and other features/apps that might run in the background
- If your phone allows you to turn off things like mobile data, do so. You can still send simple SMS texts and make calls without it. And that being off saves you considerable battery life. Turn off data roaming as well
- Turn off any voice controls.
- Keep your phone cool if you can. Excessive heat can drain your battery
There are battery backups out there. The one pictured here is less than $15, is about the size and weight of a tube of lipstick, and will charge most cell phones up to AT LEAST 70%. It does come with a USB cable, but you can use your own as well. Not a bad thing to have in your Go bag or emergency kit.
Make ICE on your lock screen
You can add an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact to your lock screen. First responders can use this information (from your still locked phone screen) to get medical information about you and to contact your loved ones in case of an emergency. Click this link to find out more about it.
Save your old phone
Most folks now a days turn in their old phone when they upgrade. But if you have an old, unused phone laying around somewhere, as long as it has a charge and powers on, it call still call 911. Even if it is not activated. Even without a Sim card in it.
So that old Iphone 2 you gave your kids to play with? Yep…it can still dial 911. It may not be a bad idea to charge it up and throw it in the glove box of your car. Maybe even put in a bug out bag. You never know when it might just come in handy.
I truly believe that in most emergency/survival situations, a working cell phone could be the most important item you have on you. Simply being able to alert others to your emergency condition and your location can save your life faster than just about anything else out there. You can even make a fire with your cell phone. Using the cell battery and a piece of steel wool you can make a fire. (Click the link to see how it is done.)
My cell phone is always a part of my EDC. It should be for you as well.
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