Be Cellphone Ready in an Emergency

By Tracey Dowdy

Just a few weeks ago here in Northern Virginia, torrential rains swept through the area. Suddenly and with little warning, flash floods swept through low lying areas, leaving many motorists stranded and in desperate need of rescue. Fortunately, the storms weren’t severe enough to impact cell phone towers, so first responders were able to respond quickly, and there were no fatalities.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case when storms like Hurricane Dorian pummel areas with high winds, flying debris, and storm surge. Residents in storm-prone areas – whether it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters – should remember that these conditions impact cellphone service, so they should only be a part of your emergency survival kit. Depending on conditions, it may be days or even weeks before roads are passable or relief workers and supplies are accessible. Having a waterproof plastic tote packed with emergency supplies may be the difference between life and death.

There are, however, several ways to make the most of your phone in the event of a disaster. These recommendations can help you in nearly every type of emergency situation.

First, before you lose power, ensure your phone is fully charged as are any back-up power sources like battery packs and solar generators. There are many reliable and affordable options available for Android and iPhone and many weigh less than a pound. Remember, even if you’re not using the phone, leave it powered on while awaiting rescue as emergency services can triangulate your location through nearby cellular towers but only if your phone has battery life.

If you live in an area like Tornado Alley or along the coast where hurricanes do their damage, it’s a good idea to invest in a portable power station. Approximately the size of a small speaker, you can tuck them on a shelf or under your desk, and when disaster strikes you can use them to power your devices or a small fridge to protect medications like insulin that must be kept cold.

One thing to consider is that it doesn’t matter how much back up power you have if your phone isn’t waterproof but gets wet. The latest Samsung Galaxy models and iPhones are water-resistant, but that’s not the same as waterproof. Consider purchasing a waterproof case, or at the very least, a supply of sturdy ziplock bags to protect your device. Most mobile phone plans do not cover water damage, though you may be able to claim it on your homeowners or renters flood insurance.

If during an emergency you discover you’re in an area where you don’t have coverage, or you don’t have an active cell plan, you can still reach 9-1-1 from your mobile phone. You can also text 9-1-1if you’re unable to talk or need to be silent, but you must first have registered for the 9-1-1 service with your cellphone provider. And don’t forget, you can use apps like Facebook Messenger, Google Duo, Skype, or Viber to make free phone calls over Wi-Fi – even if there’s no cell service.

Next, consider that while your phone’s GPS will work even if there’s no cell service, you’ll need to have downloaded maps ahead of time to take advantage of Google’s offline feature. Follow these directions to download Google’s own maps, or download maps from  an app like Navmii to access directions offline. Keep in mind a lack of cell service means you won’t get real time updates on situations like traffic and accuracy may be affected since cell phones used GPS-A (assisted) technology to communicate with satellites, and physical factors like tunnels, mountains, or tall buildings may cause interference.

It’s also a good idea to download emergency preparedness apps before disaster strikes. The Red Cross has several excellent apps, including a Shelter Finder app, First Aid, Hurricane app, Earthquake, Wildfire, as well as First Aid for pets as well as people. Each of the apps includes checklists, advice, and instructions on what to do when disaster strikes. Their all-inclusive Emergency app allows users to monitor over 35 different severe weather and emergency alerts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has an app that sends real-time alerts for natural disasters in your area plus four additional locations, provides emergency tips for over twenty different situations, identifies nearby emergency shelters and disaster recovery centers where you can speak with FEMA personnel face to face.

 Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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