How to communicate during disasters
Destructive tornadoes, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee all hit Virginia in 2011. In the minutes and hours after these disasters, it was difficult to make calls on cell phones because the mobile networks were so busy. When disaster strikes, you may need to call 9-1-1 or let loved ones know that you are okay. Follow these tips to make you can communicate during an emergency.
Before a Disaster: How to Prepare Your Home and Mobile Device*
- Keep a list of emergency phone numbers in your cell phone and near your home phone.
- Have charged batteries and car-phone chargers available for back-up power for your cell phone.
- If you have a traditional landline (non-broadband or VOIP) phone, keep at least one non-cordless phone in your home, because it will work even if you lose power.
- Prepare a family contact sheet with at least one out-of-town contact. Often it’s easier to make long-distance rather than local calls during an emergency. Create emergency contact wallet cards online or download printable Wallet Cards for emergency information. [203kb PDF]
- Program "In Case of Emergency" (ICE) contacts into your cell phone so emergency personnel can contact those people for you if you can’t use your phone. Let your ICE contacts know of any medical issues or other special needs you may have.
- If you are evacuated and have call-forwarding on your home phone, forward your home phone number to your cell phone number.
- If you do not have a cell phone, keep a prepaid phone card to use if needed during or after a disaster.
- Have a battery-powered radio or television available (with spare batteries).
- Subscribe to text alert services from local or state governments to receive emergency alerts. Parents should sign up for their school district emergency alert system.
During and After a Disaster: How to Reach Friends, Loved Ones & Emergency Services
- If you have a life-threatening emergency, call 9-1-1. Remember that you cannot currently text 9-1-1. If you are not experiencing an emergency, do not call 9-1-1.
- For non-emergency communications, use text messaging, e-mail, or social media instead of making voice calls on your cell phone to avoid tying up voice networks. Data-based services like texts and emails are less likely to experience network congestion. You can also use social media to post your status to let family and friends know you are okay. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, you can use resources such as the American Red Cross's Safe and Well program (www.redcross.org/safeandwell).
- Keep all phone calls brief to avoid tying up voice networks. Just share vital information.
- If you are unsuccessful in completing a call using your cell phone, wait ten seconds before redialing to help reduce network congestion.
- Conserve your cell phone battery by reducing the brightness of your screen, placing your phone in airplane mode, and closing apps you are not using that draw power.
- If you lose power, you can charge your cell phone in your car. Just be sure your car is in a well-ventilated place – not in a garage – but do not go to your car until any danger has passed. You can also listen to local radio stations in your car for important news alerts.
- Tune into local TV and radio stations for important news alerts. If applicable, be sure that you know how to activate the closed captioning or video description on your television.
- Unless you have a hands-free device in your car, do not talk, text or tweet on a cell phone while driving. Stop driving or pull over to the side of the road before using the phone.
- Immediately following a disaster, resist using your mobile device to watch streaming videos, download music or videos, or play video games, all of which can add to network congestion. Limiting use of these services can help life-saving emergency calls get through to 9-1-1.
*(Consumers with questions about their particular mobile phone devices should contact their wireless provide or equipment manufacturer.)