Cellphones and Disaster Preparedness

Tim Eutin

The number of declared disasters in the United States has increased from an average of 13 a year in the 1950s to 60 a year between 2010 and 2018 according to the Urban Institute. Being prepared and knowing what to do before, during, and after a disaster can make the difference between life and death for you and your family.

Pew Research reports that 97% of the United States population owns a cell phone of some variety and 85% own a smartphone. Cell phones can play an important role in disaster and emergency planning because many people always have their cellphone nearby.

It is vital to understand that like any tool, cell phones do have their limitations when it comes to emergency planning. Cell phones rely on network towers and electricity, both of which can be lost during and after a disaster. According to CNN Business, Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25% of all cell towers in its path. Because of this, you should not rely solely on your cell phone for communication after an event.

On the other hand, many cell towers operate on emergency backup generators and can operate when there are major power outages. After Hurricane Sandy knocked the power out for 8.1 million homes (1), there was still spotty cell coverage because some of the towers operated on emergency backup generators (2). These generators allowed victims of the hurricane to communicate with emergency personnel and family in the critical hours after the storm.

One of the best uses for your cell phone as it relates to emergency preparedness is to use it to automatically get emergency alerts. Being aware of a potential emergency is important and may give you time to take protective action. Many official government agencies such as FEMA, The National Weather Service, Homeland Security, and local and state governments are set up to broadcast emergency alerts within a specified radius of a potential disaster. These would include severe weather alerts, tornado warnings, fire alerts, evacuation warnings, and more. Your smartphone can be set up to receive these alerts.

Being prepared before a tornado or disaster occurs can make a difference in the outcome .Gentrinity/freeimages.com

There are many different types of smartphones and the procedure to set up your alerts can vary. Most involve going into your settings, then notifications, and making the selections of alerts that you wish to receive. You can search online for instructions for your specific phone by searching, “set my (insert your model of phone) to receive WEA alerts” then following the instructions.

Cell Phones can help with Insurance claims. If you suffer damage from a disaster your insurance company may require proof of loss. Your cell phone can provide several options to aid in this. First, you can use an app to make an inventory of your items. There are several available wherever you download your apps or ask your insurance agent for a recommendation.

Most smartphones come with a good video camera. Forbes recommends making a video inventory of your household items and house to back up your insurance claims. You can start by doing one room at a time. As you video the room describe out loud what you are videoing. After you finish you can store a copy of this in the cloud or email a copy to yourself. It is a good idea to do this after a major purchase or change in your household to keep it current.

You can turn your cellphone into a flashlight for free. If your phone did not come with a flashlight app installed go to wherever you download your apps and get one. Being able to use your phone as a flashlight has many benefits. Most people always keep their phones with them so you will not be without a flashlight when the power goes out. Another benefit is that many flashlight apps include a strobe function. A flashing strobe light is much easier to see in an emergency where rescuers might be searching for you. Your flashlight will work even if cell coverage is lost.

You can use your smartphone to locate your family after an emergency. During an emergency, families can become separated. Not knowing the location of your loved ones can be very worrisome. There are several apps available that allow you to locate your family member’s phone and they are available for both Apple and Android. Another alternative is to utilize a hiking or running app that has GPS tracking and allows for sharing. The popular running app, Stava, allows users to share their results with people that follow them. If your family uses an app such as this and one member turns it on and saves the results, everyone following them will know where they are located.

Cell phones are easy to keep charged with a little planning. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Utility Dive, a service that tracks power outages, reported that many people were without power for up to 14 days. In extended emergencies, your cell phone will lose its charge and you will need to be able to recharge it. There are several options to help here. One is to purchase a portable cell phone power bank. These small devices are basically just an external battery that you can connect to your phone with a USB cable. There are many different types on the market, and you can choose one that fits your budget with some starting for less than twenty dollars. Regardless of which portable battery bank you chose, it is important to keep it charged and keep it handy.

A second option to keep your cellphone charged is to purchase a solar cellphone charger. These are available online or at electronics stores and are also very affordable. You can use these to charge your cellphone during daylight hours. These are great items to include in an emergency preparedness kit.

There are some limitations to the use of cell phones in emergency preparation but there are also advantages. When it comes to an emergency you need to be able to use what you have on hand to your advantage and this includes your cell phone.

1) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-storm-sandy-powercuts/superstorm-sandy-cuts-power-to-8-1-million-homes-idUSBRE89T10G20121030

2) https://qz.com/21909/hurricane-sandy-and-cell-phone-network-service/).

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As the Media Outreach manager of Sempercomm, Emergency Management Equipment Company, my mission is to help educate the public in ways to prepare for and survive both natural and man made disasters. The articles draw upon the combined knowledge of staff professionals with many years experience with FEMA and Emergency Management Organizations.

Martinsburg, WV

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