Let Sandy Be Your Reminder: Plan For Disaster Now
The Bay Area will probably not see a storm like Hurricane Sandy, but now is a good time to update your plans for a major earthquake.
That includes your plan for communicating with loved ones after a disaster. Sandy exposed just how easily communications can break down after a landmark disaster, with flooded cell phone towers, fallen phone lines and backup towers failing when their generators ran dry.
Kelly Huston of the California Emergency Management Agency says phone systems will get overwhelmed in a disaster. First responders can get priority on the network, bumping civilian calls aside. Still, text messaging should work even if the phones are commandeered.
"(It's) a digital system," Huston says. "And when you do a voice call it's like sending 20,000 text messages all at the same time. But if you do a single text message that's just a small amount of digital data that goes through the system, and that will actually work in most cases."
Cal EMA has plans in place to keep cell tower generators fueled up, and to use backups like satellite systems or even ham radio.
Huston recommends getting a portable radio with extra batteries (or perhaps one that's solar or hand-cranked) and a car charger for your phone. Landline phones are powered at the source, so they should still get a dial tone even if your home's power goes out. (Check carefully, however, if you have landline phone service through cable, satellite or VOIP services. They may work differently.) You should also decide where your family will meet up after a disaster if you cannot return home.
"Just know what you're going to do anyway," says Huston, "so you know that, 'Okay, I can't make a call, I can't hear the radio because my batteries are dead... Okay, well, I know I've told my relatives, if we have this disaster, we're all going to meet up at this location, and that's where we will be so you can find us.'"
Huston says California's first responders have already played out several scenarios with other agencies and telecommunications companies, figuring out how they would respond to a wide variety of challenges in a disaster. Several backup networks are ready to go, including satellite communications systems and even good-old-fashioned ham radio.