Options When Cell Service Dies in a Disaster

Update 4/13/2018: Field tests on the Garmin InReach suggest that the device can inadvertently call search and rescue teams (Link).

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?

Debunking Zello

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.

Update 4/13/2018: Field tests on the InReach suggest that the device can inadvertently call search and rescue teams (Link).

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:

  1. Voice communication outside the disaster area.
  2. 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.

My Take-Away

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Take a look at firechat app for iPhone and android. It utilizes multi-hop store and forwarding mesh networking via wifi and Bluetooth to send your message. No internet required. (But if you or a nearby user has internet it will use that as well)

    • I mentioned FireChat in my article. It is not suitable for communication outside a disaster area, especially one without infrastructure (like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands) after Irma and Maria.

  2. Brian – I hope it’s okay to share your article with my amateur radio club – you’ll get all the credit, and I’ll link to your blog.

  3. Carlos says:

    Since this was updated 4/18 I think a comment is warranted on inReach. I deployed to PR for disaster relief and I am a ham radio operator. I reached a similar conclusion as you (Iridium Go!) and Ham is not for everyone, but Iridium is a crazy expensive monthly alternative. And coverage in some areas is not as advertised. I tried to use one of those while in PR, it was not great. I chose inReach and recommended it to the isolated communities I went. Yes, I did experience one of those where it almost activated (I heard the alarm and looked, plenty of time to cancel). I simply changed the way I carried it. I’m only commenting because not everyone clicks on other links and may not read the whole story. Your comment may lead some folks to skip that option when in fact, is a very good one. Specially paired with a smart phone.

    Your comment on ham radio, though accurate, ignores the low cost 2 band handhelds that can use local repeaters. And in emergencies, not for chatting but for life critical functions, well, not everyone in that net needs to be licensed (not advocating for not licensing, simply stating a fact). Even in PR, where the hurricane destroyed the repeaters for quite a few emergency responders, some Ham radio use was up. And some very generous folks from the US and Canada contributed to keep the infrastructure running.