September is National Preparedness Month (see fema.gov for more information), Hurricane Irene is behind us and 2 days ago we recognized the 10th Anniversary of the tragedies that occurred on September 11, 2001.  Last month, an unexpected and powerful earthquake struck the east coast.  Unfortunately, right after the earthquake, many people were unable to use their cell phones.  I was asked by WUSA 9 News in Washington, DC to discuss why cell phones didn’t work after the 5.8 magnitude quake.  The main reason cell phones may not work during a disaster is because of call volume.  When a disaster occurs, everyone’s first instinct is to call their loved ones and make sure they are safe.  Cell phone companies know this and estimate the call volume if a disaster strikes.  They make preparations based on their estimates for that level of cell phone usage.  However, if the call volume exceeds the estimate, then calls get dropped and won’t go through. 

So, what can you do to make sure you can reach your loved one when a disaster strikes?

  1. Text on your cell phone instead of making a voice call.  Sending a text uses less bandwidth and is more likely to go through.
  2. Most phones have internet service, so use Twitter or Facebook to connect with your loved ones.
  3. Download apps like GroupMe and Emergency Distress Beacon. GroupMe is a free app that lets up to 25 pople text, talk and share locations. The Emergency Distress Beacon send out your GPS coordinates via email or text message.

Also, talk to your cell phone carriers about how they increase signal strenght during high surges or handle call volume when disasters occur.  Here are some questions to ask your cell phone carrier. 

  1. Some cell phone carriers have websites that allow customers to view what areas have and don’t have signal strength.  Ask your cell phone carrier if this option is available to customers.
  2. If we know bad weather is coming, cell phone companies may bring portable cell phone towers to those areas.  Ask if your cell phone carrier if this is an option.
  3. Ask your cell phone carrier if they have an emergency plan online.

But everyone should prepare ahead of time for a disaster.  Here are some things to do ahead of time:

  1. Each family should create a Family Communication Plan for emergencies.  It should detail where everyone should meet-up place and have a designated point of contact that everyone has to check in with.
  2. Keep cell phones charged if bad weather is coming.  Also buy and charge extra batteries.
  3. Use land lines that plug into the wall.  Your phone will still work if the electricity goes out.
  4. Two-way radios work in any situation and they only cost about $60. The radios have dozens of channels for families to communicate over. Buy them before-hand and store in your emergency kit.

 Using the above information, we can all be prepared for an emergency situation.  You can also check out websites like fema.gov and ready.gov for more tips and guidelines.  Unfortunately, with all that is happening, I can’t help but think that disaster is not just something that just might happen one day, but is something that we have to expect and be prepared for.  So plan accordingly.