Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog .
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog .
Let me begin this Post by clearly stating this is NOT a knock on the wireless industry.
I spent a number of years while I was with the City of St. Petersburg working with cellular companies and cell tower companies configuring and locating cell towers.
When it comes to dedication to service and reliability they are to a person totally dedicated.
Here is the problem:
In virtually every major local emergency or disaster the local cellular system has collapsed under the weight of its call load.
One of my most vivid memories is the from the Oklahoma City bombing. As I stood in the City IT Data Center I watched the Oklahoma City Fire Chief begging people to please get off their cell phones so first responders could communicate.
That story has and continues to repeat itself in almost every localized major disaster right up to today. The cellular system fails for a brief time under the volume of calls, texts, tweets, posts and pictures.
When a major hurricane or even a very bad storm like the No Name Storm of a while back hits here it will be no different.
Those cell towers you see around the bay area will in all likelihood survive all but the worst Category 4 or 5 storms, but if you look closely at the pictures you will see many cellular antenna arrays mounted on roof tops of tall and some not so tall buildings.
These critical links in the cellular system are only as good as what they are bolted to and the roofs they sit on. There will undoubtedly be some physical loss of capacity in a really big hurricane event.
The real problem with the wireless system in an emergency is not the survivability of the system it is us.
We have all come to rely on and take for granted our cell phones and tablets when it comes to communication. Look around. It is ever more difficult to find someone who is not on their cell phone or tablet.
We text our kids, use locators track our kids and sometimes spouses and it always works.
There is the occasional dropped call but almost all of time it just simply works. Like all things that provide convenience and connectivity we become totally dependent on them.
Chances are in a hurricane leading up to the storm the cellular system will work reasonably well. But as the storm grows closer and people go from concerned to panic and start calling and texting, the wireless system will begin to slow down. At some point it may just stop working.
What's even more important is a text that would go through almost immediately in normal circumstances may take hours in an emergency. You cannot count on texting as a form of immediate communication.
Following the hurricane and the ensuing panic to find love ones, secure property, get help from first responders and let family and loves out of town know your status it is easily possible cell service will be spotty for hours if not days.
The Hurricane is the scenario that we most often plan for in Florida, but a strong tornado which happens almost without warning can be just as serious.
The wireless system inside the tornado zone will be severely impacted, but outside the zone it will be functioning. Loading from calls, messages and pictures will be a major problem causing delays, dropped calls and no service. Relying on the cell phone to get family back together may work but it also may not.
If your home is not affected by the tornado it is the best rallying point.
If it is damaged, you and your family members may not be able to get to your house. You need a place defined in advance where everyone knows to rendezvous.
Local school, disaster shelter, large store in a shopping center somewhere everyone can go to and get back together quickly.
Trying to set that up in real time on your cell phone may just not work.
If your disaster plan is:
We will round up the family by texting or calling
Everyone call dad, if you can't get dad call mom
We will know where the kids are by using the locator
We have chargers in the cars
We can text message or call the grandparents up in Ohio
Probably should send some pictures after the storm.
Should get a case of water, some hot dogs and some propane for the grill
Good plan problem solved.
What if you can't get a call or a message to go through?
What if you haven't connected with one or more of the kids or your spouse or significant other?
What if someone in your family is found by a first responder, where will they be taken?
As a backup plan check one of the Hurricane Guides and find the shelter nearest to your home. Follow the Hurricane Guide for preperations and add this additional step.
Take the family, get in the car and drive by the shelter so everyone will know where it is located.
Write your child's name on a piece of paper along with the shelter address, put it in small plastic bag and put it in a zipper compartment in their back pack or computer bag. That way they can tell a first responder where their family will rendezvous.
Put that same information on a card in your wallet or purse so you will always have it with you.
This is a simple way to establish a single point where you can get your family back together in a disaster.
The people who run the wireless system are dedicated beyond belief. They will risk life and limb to get the system back up and running in a disaster. But, they cannot control how we will use it and there is the problem.
As a final thought should a disaster strike try to resist the temptation to start texting, tweeting and sending photos up north to your relatives, and keep the kids off their phones until things calm down a bit.
One of the best hurricane or disaster plans you can have is a plan that does not rely on your cell phone to gather up your family and your loved ones.