With over 91% of adults in the United States owning a cell phone and almost 51% of the population choosing to do without a landline phone keeping your lines of communication open and powered up during an emergency or disaster is important.
Here’s the key points you need to know. Continue reading for details and more information:
Standard landlines carry their own power when the power goes out, so purchase a trimline corded phone to plug in during a power outage and you’re likely to have a working phone even if you don’t have power.
Keep your cell phones charged and get a portable power charger to recharge. Make it a habit to recharge your cell phones each night.
Close all apps and turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability to conserve battery. Don’t turn off the phone as turning the phone off and on drains more energy.
Your texts have a better chance of getting through during a disaster/emergency because they use less bandwidth.
If you don’t have coverage (zero bars) call 911 anyway. There just might be enough bandwidth to get through. If the ‘no coverage’ is because you’re in an area covered by another network, 911 calls are required to be connected regardless of your service provider.
Consider purchasing a pre-paid cell phone from a different service provider to broaden your coverage during an emergency.
Will you have phone service during an emergency?
The answer depends on what type of phone you have (cell, VoIP, standard landline), who’s affected by the emergency (you or your service provider), and the extent of the emergency or disaster.
If the power is out in your neighborhood, then you may still have cell phone service if the service provider is not affected. If your service provider lost power and their backup generator isn’t available or capable of handling the load, then you probably won’t have phone coverage. In the 12 years I lived in Hawai’i and the numerous storms, power outages, and other natural disasters, there was only one time that cell phone wasn’t operating. It’s likely that a simple power outage in your neighborhood will not affect your cell phone coverage.
However, if the disaster or emergency is wide spread, your calls may not go through. Either your mobile carrier may be affected or the vast number of calls being made is
congesting the networks. This is where the texting comes in handy. If your call won’t go through (due to bandwidth limitations or out of range) try texting. The lower bandwidth requirement of texts might allow it to slip through. If your text doesn’t go through, it may be saved and transmitted later when capacity is available.
During an emergency, most of would prefer that our emergency responders can communicate and so the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has set up and manages the Wireless Priority Service (WPS). If you want to learn more about WPS go to www.dhs.gov/wireless-priority-service-wps.
NOTE: If you need to call 911 from your cell phone, make the call regardless of what coverage your phone shows. You may have zero bars because you may be out of your network area and coverage is through another provider. But your 911 call will go through. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established basic 911 rules which requires all wireless service providers to transmit 911 calls regardless of whether the caller is a subscriber or not. The FCC also established enhanced 911 rules which provide your phone number, and location to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have coverage on your phone and you know you’re in your own network. The zero bars may show because available bandwidth is low. Make the call anyway, there might be just enough bandwidth to make it.
VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol phones are becoming more common in homes as many Internet providers offer the option. If you have a VoIP phone, find and read the information the company gave you that explained the 911 limitations or enhancements and any emergency or disaster guidelines.
If your power goes out, your phone is out. If your internet is down, your phone is down. However, your provider may have an app available for your smartphone that won’t be affected by the power outage that is affecting your home. If you’re not already familiar with your provider’s app, get it and learn how to use it BEFORE an emergency. If the provider is impacted by the emergency or disaster, your phone is down.
The FCC has established some 911 rules for your VoIP provider but there may be limitations. Check the material your provider gave you when you signed up. Make sure your physical address is current, not your billing address, but your physical address. Because your VoIP number is not necessarily transmitted to the emergency call center, if you’re disconnected, call back. Give them your physical location first even before your name.
Less than 50% of the US population currently has a standard landline (aka wireline) phone. If you’re one of them, excellent! Purchase a corded phone (if you don’t already have one) that does not require you to plug it in to a power outlet. The common style of corded phone that doesn’t require external power is a trimline phone. Other terms may be slim-line or princess.
During a power outage you will have phone service (assuming the phone lines aren’t down in the emergency) because the trimline corded phone uses the small amount of power from the phone line itself. You may routinely use a cordless phone/handset that requires you to put it back in the cradle for recharging. This set will not work if the power is out. But if you have that trimline corded phone stashed next to your emergency light (flashlight or battery operated lantern) then you can plug it in when you need to and have communication capability.
REMINDER: STAY OFF THE PHONE (MOBILE, VOIP, LANDLINE) UNLESS YOU NEED TO CALL FOR HELP. This allows the phone lines to be used by emergency first responders and those who need their help.
Build your Power Plan for when the electricity goes out
Each of the following section include suggested items to have or purchase. You do not have to get all of them at once. Start with adding one item to build your Power Plan now and add more as you can. Remember the idea is to become better prepared, not best prepared or nothing.
If you don’t already have a car charger for your phone, get one.
One item you might want for everyday use and for emergencies is a USB adapter that is charge only or data blocking. It is also referred to as a USB condom. Take one with you when you travel so no one can steal your data while you’re charging your electronics in the airport or other public accessed charging station.
Purchase a portable charger (aka external battery, power bank, battery pack, or external battery) for your cell phone.
You could also purchase a hand-crank charger for your phone but believe me you’ll get tired of cranking long before your phone is fully charged. As for solar-powered charger, save your money at this time and focus on the previous options first.
Conserve power by:
closing all apps;
shutting off the Wi-Fi;
turning off the Bluetooth option; and
turning off the Cellular Data access for all apps you don’t need.
Closing all open apps will help, but some apps are still using data, Wi-Fi, and power even when closed. Shutting off the Wi-Fi will help, but some apps will continue to use your Cellular Data. You will need to turn off data access for individual apps.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Cellular Data options are found in the settings section of your phone. You could also turn the airplane mode on to limit power consumption, but do this if your plan is to make outgoing calls only and you don’t need to receive incoming calls.
Installing a backup power supply or an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system can power your VoIP phone as long as the internet is up and all your equipment is also on the UPS system. You would need to connect router and other devices you need for internet access as well as your phone. But if the internet is down, a backup power supply will not help you communicate.
Buy a basic, no frills trimline corded phone and sit back and relax. Any electricity needed for a phone call is provided on the telephone wires.
Communicate What and How
Discuss with family and friends when to expect to hear from you and help them understand that you’ll be busy responding to the situation and you’ll let them know you’re safe when it’s prudent. If your plan is to tell them immediately — text them. Keep the phone lines open for emergency responders and personnel. Call 911 if you need emergency help.
If you’re a Facebook user, you may have heard, seen or participated in the Facebook Safety Check. It may be a quick way of letting people know you’re safe, but if Facebook has identified you as being in the affected area and you’re not, then it could increase your stress and panic, as well as your friends’ and family’s worry. If you’re interested in learning more do a search for Facebook safety check or go to www.facebook.com/about/safetycheck.
Bottom line — have a conversation with family and friends about realistic expectations of communication during an emergency or disaster in your area. Include an out-of-area contact point and establish your meet-up location. Share some of this information with friends & family, but remember to keep all personal information off Facebook and other social media.
Though I’ve covered a lot of information here and suggested many tools and supplies you might need, remember to make this doable today. Below is a list of possible items to add to your emergency supplies. Look over the list and add ONE item you don’t already have. I’ve placed them in the order of importance so start at the top and work your way down over time.
Items to add now or over time:
Car charger for your cell phone — keep it in the car.
Trimline corded phone if you have a landline — place it near your emergency lighting or near the phone outlet.
Data blocking USB adaptor aka USB condom — add it to your go-kit, travel kit, purse, briefcase, and more.
Portable charger that can be recharged via a regular outlet or car charger — placement will depend on how often you use it and where you keep your other electronic gear. Add it to your Grab & Go checklist.
Pre-paid mobile phone on a different carrier — add it to your go-kit. This wasn’t previously discussed in detail, but having a cell phone on a different network may increase your chances of having service available in an emergency.
Portable charger as part of your lantern or radio that can be recharged via solar or hand-crank — add it to your go-kit/camping gear.
Additional ideas to reduce power usage whether you’re facing an emergency or just out-and-about in your day.
Close all apps.
Turn off Wi-Fi.
Turn of apps accessing GPS location.
Lower brightness of screen.
Don’t run down your car battery while using or charging your phone. Turn the engine on.
Take 15 minutes now to look at all the buttons and options on your phone. You may just find something you didn’t know about but will come in handy today or during the next emergency.
Turn off Wi-Fi.
Close all windows and programs.
Close and turn off all apps.
Lower brightness of screen.
If you have power, but limited internet access try Tripmode. You choose which apps and programs to shut down when you’re on a mobile hotspot or a limited Wi-Fi connection. It will automatically reduce your mobile data usage and limit what programs are accessing the scarce bandwidth.
 Maeve Duggan, “Cell Phone Activities 2013”, Pew Research Center, September 19, 2013, http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/09/19/cell-phone-activities-2013/
 Stephen J. Blumberg, Ph.D., and Julian V. Luke, “Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2016,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2017,
This is Step #3 from my upcoming book
31 Small Steps to Organize for Emergencies & Disasters.
Publication date has not been set, but stay tuned.