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Volume 27, Issue 3

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October 26, 2007

Using Cellular As A Backup For Communications

Written by  James F. Kainz
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Your local telephone company has a plan for your telephone service in the event of an area wide disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane. For most companies that plan is to shut off your dial tone so you can’t make outgoing calls.

Only customers with a public health and safety responsibility such as hospitals, fire departments, police, mayors, city council members, etc. will be able to use the system. They have been identified ahead of time as “essential service,” “priority service” or some other such designation in case of a serious problem. Of interest to the general public is the fact that public telephones receive this designation as well. If you can’t get dial tone at home or the office, a nearby public telephone may be your best chance to get access to the telephone network.

Your other alternative for gaining access is the cellular system. Presently most of the cellular companies make no attempt to allocate service. The network is first-come first-served. Any contingency plan which doesn’t include cellular as one of several backup methods has missed a major opportunity to establish vital communications.

The system may be jammed immediately after a disaster, but your delay in accessing the telephone network is likely to be measured in minutes rather than days. Most contingency plans make the assumption that the landline telephone system will be out for three days.

But who can you call if most of the telephones don’t work in the area affected?

Getting back to that plan of the local telephone company. Usually they only shut off outgoing calls. Incoming calls can still be received in many cases. Sometimes the switching centers may be overloaded. This will limit incoming calls, but again this condition is likely to last for minutes rather than days. In other words, your family and business associates may not be able to call you if they can’t get dial tone on the regular telephone, but you may be able to call them if you have a cellular phone. Also, you will likely be able to call out of state on cellular no matter what the local situation.

This conscious policy of the local telephone company is much more likely to impact your ability to get telephone service than physical damage to telephone facilities as a result of the disaster. Physical disruptions are difficult to predict and consequently more complicated to prepare for Known policy considerations fortunately can be anticipated in your planning process.

The telephone network in the United States reaches 97% of the homes and offices. It is by far the best vehicle for two way communication in terms of the number of places you can contact if you can gain access to the system.
Knowing the importance of including cellular in your contingency plan, how do you pick the right telephone?

“Handheld” cellular phones generally operate at a maximum of .6 Watts. This is fine in mature systems were the cell sites are close together. This may not do in a disaster if some of the cell sites are down, however. The cellular network is self correcting in that you are always talking on the cell site which is giving you the strongest signal. If the closest cell site is damaged you will automatically be transferred to the next best antenna. Now, though, you may have to transmit the signal 14 miles rather than the two miles which was customary when all of the cells were working. The extra power of a 3 Watt “transportable” phone can make the difference in getting a call through or not.

Another limiting factor of cellular phones is how long the battery will last between charges. This is usually quoted in terms of standby time (when the phone is turned on to receive incoming calls but not engaged in transmitting a call) and talk time (when the phone is transmitting a call). Get the phones with the longest ratings in the event you are unable to charge them during the disaster period. You can also obtain extra batteries, but someone will have to make sure they are kept charged all the time. The best phones for disaster recovery applications can be kept charging for a year or more. Most cellular phones are not intended to withstand this, and you should check on this feature before selecting your phones.

Batteries are also important in selecting your cellular phone in that most use NiCad power supplies. These are notorious for a declining ability to hold a charge over time after recharging. This is known as a “memory problem” which is caused by not completely discharging the battery each time before it is recharged.

Sealed lead acid gel cell batteries are much less temperamental to repeated charges. They will probably provide almost the same amount of talk time and standby time after a significant amount of use as they did when new.
Most of the cellular geographic service areas in the United States have two companies which provide cellular service. You may want to obtain cellular phones which allow “dual number registration” and sign up for service on both systems. That way if one system is down or jammed you can switch over to the other system. Unfortunately, this is the kind of redundancy only a disaster recovery planner could love, and someone is bound to point out correctly that this will result in two telephone bills a month for each phone.

Another feature which might be beneficial is alphanumeric memory. Names as well as numbers are stored electronically. This eliminates the need for a separate telephone list which can be misplaced in an emergency. Simply scroll through the memory to “VP Security” or “Jones” and the phone number appears automatically. This feature requires periodic updating in the event of personnel or telephone number changes.

No matter which phone you select, make sure the people who might need to use it are trained on how it works. During a crisis is no time to learn that cellular telephones don’t provide a dial tone before you place a call. The use of the “send” and “end” buttons are equally critical.

Be sure to test the phones every two or three months to verify that they are in proper working order.
Cellular phones should be purchased before the disaster, of course. Not only will you have them when you need them, but you can publish the telephone numbers for the Disaster Recovery Team to receive incoming calls from the people they need to hear from.

With regard to financial issues, quantity discounts are sometimes available when purchasing 10 or more phones at a time. Some cellular telephone companies may have special rates for disaster recovery usage. Pac Tel Cellular in Los Angeles, for example, has a standard rate of $45 per month, an economy plan for $25, and an earthquake preparedness plan for $16.50. Some restrictions apply to the special rate.

Cellular phones constitute an initial investment as well as an ongoing expense, but organizations that have been through a disaster recovery can testify that this expenditure is small in comparison to the enormous benefit that they provide.


James F. Kainz is president of Disaster Phone Communications, a Mermosa Beach, CA-based producer of disaster recovery cellular phones. He is a consultant on the use of cellular phones for disaster recovery applications.

This article adapted from Vol. 6 #2.

Read 1915 times Last modified on October 11, 2012