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Your Best Friend: But Will It Work?

January 28, 2013

Last October, tens of thousands of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware residents discovered that calls to and from their cell phones were not getting through – just as the high winds and flooding were hitting in full force.

In the blog article Living through Sandy: Tips from a Survivor by Frantz Ostmann, you will find some surprises.


But Lesson #3 is: “Yes, it can happen to you.” See the Executive Director report for a link to this fascinating blog post.

Here are a few things that you, your family, and your friends should know about cell phones.  These tricks maximize your chances of communicating, while helping not to “choke” the cell system.

1.  Have a plan: tell a friend or relative outside your region that you will be texting them in an emergency.  They can then reply, notify others, and be a message drop for you and your family.

2.  Use text, not voice.  Text utilizes the “control channel,” which gives you the little signal bars and performs other phone functions.  It will probably have more bandwidth.  Texting also uses less battery power.

3.  Turn your phone on for only a few minutes at a time, every 2-4 hours, to preserve your battery.  See if you have a signal, send and receive your text messages, and turn it off again.

4.  Avoid the temptation to attempt voice calls.  Even if you have a signal, the cellular voice system will probably get clogged, since with power outages, flooding, earthquakes etc. the cell infrastructure will be seriously degraded.

5.  Have a way to charge your phone, smartphone, Ipad, etc.  Hand cranked chargers are inexpensive and work fine, but you have to have one *before* the disaster.  See below for more tips.

6.  Did you know that you can send an email to most cellphones?  Details in the article How to Use the Internet When the Internet is Gone, thanks to John Hermann on Buzzfeed.

I am grateful to Larry Bentley, who provided most of the expertise and content for the article that follows:

What you should know about cell phones when things are rough – lessons from a technician who was in New York following Hurricane Sandy

Here is Larry’s report:

I arrived Oct 31 Wednesday afternoon at Islip Long Island airport, the closest open airport my airline could get me to New York City.  Long Island, even though further away from landfall point, had significant tree damage leading to power outages.  As I arrived I noted cell phone service was spotty.  I immediately switched to text mode.

In this case, I suspect many of the local area cell towers were out of juice, as electricity was out in many areas around Long Island.  Surprisingly, the airport terminal had WiFi operational so I shifted to it for communication updates to my work.

Thursday we got to work in Manhattan.  Crossing the bridges from Queens was restricted to vehicles with 3 or more.  And naturally some people were readily standing by the road to add to your load to make the requirement.  I don't know if they really wanted into Manhattan or just rode back and forth, don't know if they charged for the “service”.  Traffic signals were out of power from about 50th street south along 2nd Ave.  Never thought I'd drive at nearly 40 mph through Manhattan for blocks without stopping.  Police were waving traffic through due south on 2nd, so going east or west wasn't a good idea.  Think how local traffic will be impacted and plan your routes accordingly.  Along the Gulf Coast, in hurricane preparation, they switch traffic on interstates, “contra-flow” with all lanes out bound to get more traffic out of about to be impacted areas.

Parking in lower Manhattan, if you had signage on your vehicle showing you were emergency response, was catch as catch can.  If you found a spot you used it (sidewalks often included!), tow trucks were mercifully scarce the first few days, or nothing would have gotten done.  The underground parking garages all had flooded and they were pumping them out, so they weren't usable.

Don’t leave your cell phone on!  Ever notice when you are in an area of spotty cell coverage that your battery runs down much quicker?  Cell phones regularly "ping" out a "here I am" message and then await a response from the cell system base station, enabling the base stations to know what phone numbers are now in their best coverage zone and allowing routing of incoming calls to the right geographic location country wide. 

When a cellphone doesn't get that comforting response from the cell tower, it keeps "pinging" and searching channels trying to find a base station to allow it to connect.  These extra transmissions cause the battery to discharge much faster. In the first few days after the storm, I left my cell phone on even while working in a basement where no cell coverage was possible.  My battery ran down in less than one day from a full charge, fortunately I had access to power to recharge it.

Preserve your battery charge, turn it on infrequently.    The best way to keep the battery charged is to turn the phone on for only a few minutes at a time every 2-4 or so hours in daytime and early evening to see if coverage is back.  If there is no good signal, the phone goes into hunt mode and that really eats battery much faster than normal. 

If you are in areas with widespread power outages and spotty cell service, turn your phone OFF for the majority of the time.  Turn it on and check it say every 2-3 hours for a few minutes and see if there is a signal, if so then check for text messages!  The system will hold them while your phone is turned off. 

This is the common mode that people in developing countries use, who live with no electricity source to charge their cell phones.  They check for text messages maybe once a day to maximize battery life.  They walk or ride a bus to town and charge the cell phone at a store or charging station while doing their frequent market chores (no refrigerator means more frequent grocery shopping).  This greatly conserves your battery life.  If you have no signal who can call you anyway?

Once cell coverage is back, car cigarette lighter chargers can work even with car not running, put key into accessory and turn off fan, lights, radio if you aren't using it for getting info.  with a car charger, turning the phone on to check if coverage is back on probably won't run the battery down at all as it is getting charge at same time.

Solar and the little hand cranked radios with cell charger cords are available, but if you don't have one BEFORE the event you won't have one after it.

Don’t depend on AC power.  If you travel with just a wall charger you are able to use only AC power, which will probably be out for days or weeks.  Instead, pack a USB-to-cell charger cord, a wall-to-USB adapter, or a vehicle cigarette lighter socket-to-USB power adapter.  Now you can charge from: a laptop powered off a single wall outlet, from a car socket, from any wall outlet, or even those specialized USB power ports that are popping up.  You have many more options.  If you know how to use alligator jumper clips you could even charge from a disabled/flooded or wrecked car if that battery still has charge.  If you are down to a wrecked vehicle watch for leaking fuel so you don't ignite it with a spark while hooking up.

Have a way to charge cell phones and mission critical gear in your response kit - a solar panel, hand cranked generator, liquid fueled generator or whatever.  Have at least one way WITH YOU to keep mission critical gear going for a few days.  This could even be commercial batteries, AA, C or D cells.  Several sources that deal with electronic hobbyists sell battery cases that hold 4 AA cells and have a USB port to allow recharging your cell phone from AA batteries.  There are also single AA powered chargers with multiple adapter tips to match many brands of cell phones. 


Simply don't let AC power availability be a single point of failure for your work.  Maintain options. 

Use texting for cell phones, but check for spotty WiFi connections and use them if available.

Why Texting works when voice calls don't.
Text messages travel on the control channel of the cell phone system, not the voice channels.  The voice channels, which are traffic engineered for only a limited percentage of the cell phones in the coverage area to be actively making a voice or data call, Thus, they probably will be overloaded in disasters.  The control channel has a much better chance of getting your text through if there is any cell signal at all.

Elevation helps.  Later in the week I was in lower Manhattan still with poor cell coverage, but climbing 15+ flights of stairs got me to decent signals since by then midtown Manhattan power and cell sites were working.  In more rural areas elevation can be the same help, after a disaster as when you are hiking or camping on vacation.  Cell signals are UHF frequencies and are basically line of sight, so get high and improve your lines of sight, you may get a distant signal that others lower down don't see.

Smart Phones are great travel aids, but their navigation systems typically don't have stored map databases.  They pull local map details via the cell phone system.  So, if there is spotty or no local cell service, you have no map info.  The GPS receiver will still work since it is satellite based, but you are without map details. 

Lesson: a dedicated GPS navigation device with current or near current database will still work when with cell phones are down.

Restoration work - contractors have basically all switched over to cell phones, some with push to talk features, having long since abandoned the old heavy walkie talkies.  But those old Walkie Talkies only need charging based on usage and they are totally INDEPENDENT of local cell phone infrastructure and service.  Who needs worldwide calling capability when you just need to communicate up or down ten stories of a building or across a city block?  Yes, it is another device to carry in the response kit, but it will work, regardless of local damage levels.  As a fallback, even the “toy” walkie talkies may worth pulling out to use, they may only work a ¼ mile but they may be all you need.

Flashlights - Or course, with backup batteries, the LED units are far more efficient than the incandescent bulb units, so your batteries last longer.  Backup, smaller single AA or AAA powered LED flashlights can let you walk stairs and other short range tasks without drawing down your big flashlight's battery.  Those little coin battery keychain flashlights can do some tasks too.

Try to standardize battery types.  Can all your essential gear run off AA batteries alone?  Then you only need to buy, store, and ROTATE one size of stored batteries to keep your response kit fresh.

Empty shelves in New York City on October 28, 2012

Other notes on local Manhattan impacts. 

The buildings that had electrical switchgear (and sometimes backup generators and or fuel tanks) in the basement lost not only power but will be down until the water damaged electrical gear is carefully cleaned or replaced.  Learn from their sorrow.  Fuel tanks often floated, broke loose from piping and leaked fuel, thus stopping backup generators. 

City codes changed after 9/11 to greatly limited fuel storage on above ground floors.  Less than 600 gallons won't last long with large electrical loads to support.  A 2 Megawatt generator can go through 120-140 gallons an hour at full load.  An old rule of thumb was 1 gallon per hour for every 10KW of electrical load on the generator if partially loaded.

The flooding from storm surge was brackish salty water and very corrosive to electrical gear.

The high rise apartment buildings, and even not so high rise units, that lost power (Zone A) had issues that don't appear obvious from the outside.  City water pressure generally only provides enough pressure to get water up 4-5 stories.  The buildings each have jockey pumps to pump water to elevated tanks for domestic and fire protection use. 

Without power to the building, quickly there is no water above the 4th or 5th floor.  So toilets don't flush.  With elevators down, the elderly were trapped in those upper floors, with very cold weather moving in the buildings without power dropped to near ambient temperatures.  A week and 2 days after the storm, NYC got 2 inches of snow.

So folks who didn't evacuate soon had no lights, no elevators, no running water, and no heat or cooling if it had been summer.

Still thinking of not evacuating your high rise for a storm likely to cause local flooding? 

Larry Bentley

If you have questions for Larry, contact us at

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