Options When Cell Service Dies in a Disaster
As Hurricane Irma raged, cellular networks hit capacity. At one point, 50% or more of cell sites were out of service in South Florida.
That got me thinking.
How would I get messages to friends and family if the only communication tool I owed (my cell phone) failed to work?
Despite the hype that Zello could turn your cell phone into a walkie-talkie, Zello does not work without cellular networks.
Zello (and similar apps) need data to communicate. Without it, they’re a brick.
At best, an app like FireChat turns cell phones into small networks. You might create a FireChat network at your shelter or hotel. But without a link to the outside world, you’re talking only to the people in your little network. Not the outside world.
So what could I do to contact my family in another city or state?
Skip Ham Radio
Believe it or not, I am not recommending amateur radio. I do believe there is value in having a license. For the average citizens, though, a portable shortwave station is too much work, time and money. It also requires family on the other end invest the same amount of effort, time and money.
SPOT GEN3 ($175)
The SPOT GEN3 is a satellite communication tool that lets your family and friends know you’re safe when you’re out of cell phone rage. The device sends messages with GPS coordinates and a link to Google Maps to 10 pre-determined contacts.
The GEN3 also has one-button SOS for an emergency. It will notify emergency responders in North America or Europe.
Garmin inReach SE+ ($400)
The Garmin inReach also is a satellite communication tool with safety of life features found in the SPOT GEN3. Unlike the SPOT GEN3, the inReach is a 2-way message system. That means you can send text messages much like a cellular phone.
The inReach also pairs with your mobile device. This connectivity allows you to access maps, aerial imagery and NOAA weather charts.
Iridium GO! ($800)
In simple terms, The Iridium GO! is a Mobile Hotspot that uses satellites to connect you to the world. This device provides global voice and text messaging to your smart phone. It also provides data so you can access the Internet or social media.
Iridium Extreme ($1,300)
Finally, we come to the Iridium Extreme, a traditional satellite phone. With it, you can make calls or send text messages to anyone on the planet. The Extreme does not have internet capabilities, so you cannot browse the web. But if you want to have a voice conversation to coordinate an evacuation, this is the tool to use.
What I Would Do
Having been through a Hurricane evacuation, I value two things:
- Voice communication outside the disaster area.
- The ability to gather data from official sources.
The great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until someone punches you in the face.” Based on my criteria, the Iridium GO! would be my choice in an emergency because it offers the most flexibility. I cannot predict my exact communication needs, but with this device, I have the most options.
Ham Radio’s Place in an Evacuation
Amateur Radio does have a place during an evacuation.
- As a tool to communicate with your family, especially separate vehicles.
- As a way to gather information during the evacuation.
For a family focused on saving their own lives, handheld amateur radios will suffice. Don’t use bubble wrap FRS radios from Wal-Mart; they aren’t powerful enough.
A half-watt radio will not communicate more than 150-250 feet in a storm. A 5-watt VHF radio, on the other hand, will give you about a mile in adverse conditions.
Ham Radio also allow you to contact local amateur radio operators as you evacuate. You can get weather updates, get updates on road closures, and keep morale high in a tough situation.
The TYT UV-8000E is a 10 Watt Dual Band Radio (VHF/UHF).
You can purchase one for $90 on Amazon.
Americans are more and more reliant on smart phones as a primary communication tool. When that tool fails, it presents a problem that can have serious consequences.
With a little forethought and a small expenditure, you can prepare.