During the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two bombs crafted from pressure cookers exploded killing 3 and injuring 264.1,2 There were many accounts of confusion and fear in the crowds as a reaction to the malicious terrorist attack. Understandably, many tried to use their cell phones to find people, to call for help, to contact loved ones, etc. In today’s age of social media, many were also trying to send posts about what was occurring as well. However, they discovered first-hand the mistake of depending solely on cell phones in an emergency. The fact is…you can’t.
On that day, many discovered that too many people using cellular service at one time will overwhelm the system. Cell phones, in case you didn’t know, do not contact phone-to-phone. They transmit first to a cellular tower in any given area, and then the tower sends a signal to the intended recipient. If the tower(s) are overloaded by signal requests, they do not work…thus…no cell signal. This is not the only reason cell phones may not work in emergency. The federal, state, and local governments also have the power to shut down the cellular networks if they deem it to be an “extreme emergency situation.”3,4 In fact, there was an AP report that circulated at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing that the local police had done just that. They soon retracted this story and claimed that the lack of cell service was just the result of the overwhelming of the systems by the demand.5 That’s not to say that the government hasn’t shut down cell service before. In 2005, the local authorities shut down cell service in the New York transit tunnels in reaction to a bombing in London, and in 2011, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut down service to try to squash a protest.6 The federal government, especially, desires to hold onto this power as revealed by an executive order by Obama in 2012.7
Of course, there are other potential reasons that your cell service may not work in an emergency. Since cell phones work through towers, they are completely dependent on the infrastructures that support the networks. If there is a power outage, the towers have only a limited supply of back-up power…if they have any back-up power at all.8 Also, natural and weather disasters could potentially damage any necessary infrastructure causing a localized (or even wide-spread) outage of service.
So does this mean cell phones are completely useless for emergency communications? Not necessarily. Cell phones are still the first thing we grab for in a personal emergency. That is, after all, one of the main reasons why we carry them. In addition, in wider emergencies, it may still be possible to communicate in a limited manner. In circumstances when the systems become overloaded, the mode most likely to work in an emergency is texting.9 However, you should know that the ability to text to 911 is not widely available, so even texting in an emergency has severe limits, and, of course, texting is still dependent on infrastructure so it still may not work.10
The best thing to do is to NOT be dependent on your cell phone for emergency communications. You need to have an alternate way to contact others and it needs to be part of your every-day emergency communications plan. Why every day? That’s because you cannot predict when a wide-scale emergency may happen. The easiest way to do this is to have access to another radio service. Utilizing another service such as CB radio, FRS/GMRS, or ham radio will give you an alternative if the cell towers were not functioning, and there are many different options available. For example, you can have a radio installed in your car, you can carry a “walkie-talkie” in a briefcase, or you can choose to carry a satellite phone. As for myself, I carry a cheap ham radio in my purse as part of my every-day carry. Sure, I have a smartphone, but I do not depend on that to be my only source of emergency communications.
There is not one right answer on how to do this that fits everyone. The only certainty here is you should not be too dependent on your cell phone. When you may need the most is the time that it is most likely not to work.