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Cell Phone Use in an Emergency

If an earthquake strikes should you use your cell phone?

It’s a natural reaction during an emergency – such as earthquakes that hit Southern California or Japan (along with the tsunami).  You quickly grab your cell phone and call home to make sure your loved ones are safe.  Or, you frantically place a call to your friends to share the experience during the quake – the rocking and rolling, the aftershocks, etc.


While that reaction may be natural, it can make a bad situation – busy signals and calls not getting through – even worse.  During an emergency the sheer volume of calls can overload a cell phone carrier, making your cell so much dead weight.  Sprint communications, for example, reported that during a Southern California earthquake they experienced an 800 percent spike in cell phone calls.  The problem is compounded when people who can’t get through keep redialing, creating what cell phone companies call ‘system block’ or plain old ‘system overload.’


But even the cell phone companies can be confused as to what to do.  Sprint, for example, cautioned against redialing your cell phone when you can’t get through to someone on the first try.  But a statement by Verizon once recommended just the opposite, recommending that callers keep redialing until they can get through in the hope that as time goes by the volume of calls will diminish.


Phone companies suggest a number of things callers can take to get call through.

  1. Use text messaging – it takes up less bandwidth so calls have a better chance of getting through.
  2.  Some carriers, like Verizon and Sprint offer “push to talk” services.  These services bypass cell phone towers, and operate from one point to another point so are less likely to experience problems during a quake.  However, one limitation is that they work only when talking to someone within a few miles from where you’re calling.
  3.  If you have a smart phone – like Apple’s iphone – you can try emailing messages through the phone’s web browser.  Email also uses less bandwidth.

Most experts agree that one of the wisest things you can do during an emergency, is NOT to use your cell phone – or land line for that matter – unless you absolutely have to.  State officials at the California Office of Emergency Services even took the extraordinary step of urging people throughout the state to cut back telephone use – something to be considered anywhere an emergency strikes.

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