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Small Business Communications:
How to Stay Connected When Disaster Strikes
by Judy K. Bell, CEM


For most small businesses, telephones are essential. Yet experience tells us that a dial tone can be very difficult to obtain after any major disaster. Three factors converge to decrease everyone's chances of getting a call through--the sudden need for people to reach their loved ones, the need for local telephone companies and interexchange carriers to re-prioritize functions to protect their networks, and the need for modern telephone systems to have electricity in order to operate. Small businesses must anticipate these factors and identify in advance who needs to communicate with whom during and after a disaster. This paper discusses a business's need for special communications and reveals how alternative means of communication may be affected by congestion on the public telephone network.

Causes of Telephone Congestion During a Disaster

Telephone networks, just like freeway systems, are constructed based on projected normal usage. Actual data is collected daily to determine the busiest hour of the day, and from that information, engineers design the capacity of the switches and telephone network. Under normal conditions, no more than 10% of telephone customers in a local area will use their telephones at the same time. When disaster strikes, however, call patterns quickly change as people try to reach their loved ones. The calling volumes escalate exponentially, causing the switching equipment and trunking facilities to quickly become overloaded.

In today’s electronic environment, the telephone switches are giant computers, which react to overloaded conditions by placing customer calling requests in queues. As more and more customers try to use their telephones, the switches eliminate all peripheral activities in an attempt to process as many calls as possible. Following the October 1, 1987 Whittier, California, earthquake, call volumes exceeded all previous loads on the telephone network. During the first two hours, call volumes ranged as high as five times the normal business day load. Mothers’ Day is traditionally the highest calling day of the year, yet calls that day surpassed the highest Mothers’ Day loads previously recorded. Similar congestion occurred following the Loma Prieta earthquake two years later.

When this situation occurs, local telephone companies and interexchange carriers immediately place commands in their networks to open up the affected area, thereby permitting people within the disaster region can call out. Blocking incoming calls reduces congestion levels more quickly. Studies show that every call completed from within an affected area will prevent ten more callers on the outside from trying to call in.

Other factors can create congestion problems in non-affected areas. An amateur radio operator in the San Fernando Valley of California was one of the first people to get through to Northern California in the first few minutes following the Whittier earthquake. He called a radio station in Northern California and reported that a major earthquake had just occurred in the San Fernando Valley, the site of the devastating 1971 earthquake. Although the actual epicenter was more than 35 miles away from the San
Fernando Valley, the impact of his erroneous report was that many people listening to the radio called their friends and loved ones to make sure they were okay. This additional congestion lasted for at least four hours following the event, as people continually made call attempts to that area.

Another phenomenon that is unique to earthquakes is aftershocks. Even those who heed the public warnings to remain off the telephones initially, soon become conditioned to immediately call following every aftershock. Because telephone network congestion can continue to peak for days and weeks, small businesses can be dramatically impacted if they are solely dependent on their phones.

Exploring the Alternatives

The most important element of using alternatives is identifying in advance what will be available. This section explores several forms of communications that are generally thought to be alternatives, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Essential Service

This telephone service is used primarily for police, fire, and other emergency agencies. However, it is not an alternative to the public telephone network. Essential service is a designation of the telephone user’s line equipment in the local central office that provides the caller dial tone in advance of others. Once the person placing the call receives dial tone, they are competing with all other callers to complete their call over the public telephone network. In a regional disaster, this service will be directly affected by the amount of congestion in the network. Although it is not an alternative to the telephone network, it does provide a better chance of gaining access to the network, and can be considered in your planning. Even though congestion will occur, many more calls will complete.

Public Telephones

It is a little known fact that public (pay) telephones are also designated as essential service, and as a result, they too receive priority dial tone. If a small business has a PBX that fails during a disaster, chances are good that a nearby public phone will still be functioning. It may become the only link to the outside world to report emergency conditions and conduct business. It is important to locate these phones in advance, and post their numbers in a visible location so they can be used for both incoming and outgoing calls at the time of a disaster. After the Whittier earthquake, long lines of employees formed at telephone booths as individuals called home to check on their loved ones.

Foreign Exchange Lines

Some small businesses may use foreign exchange lines in their day-to-day business. Depending on what kind of foreign exchange service it is, that line may actually be drawing dial tone from a remote central office. If the remote office is outside the disaster area, this line may provide a way to complete and receive calls because it is not in the affected area. Many times this alternative is cost-prohibitive, so it should be incorporated in the planning only if it can be used for other purposes as well. The telephone companies use this alternative in their Emergency Operations Centers, which provides alternate access to the public network. Notice it is still using the public network, just originating from a different geography.

Customer Premises Equipment

Some small businesses have purchased PBX or other sophisticated telephone equipment. Just as the telephone companies secure their equipment and provide additional power sources, so too must small businesses. Back-up power for telecommunications clearly was the most vulnerable element in past disasters where power failures occur. In order to operate without electricity, some businesses retain old telephone sets that they can quickly connect. Again, this is not an alternative to the public telephone network, but it will provide access if nothing else is working at that location. This is particularly helpful if the disaster is a single site event, like a fire or flood, rather than regional.


Fax machines exist in most small businesses today. They come in two varieties. Either they use a regular dial tone line, or they are provided on a private line from one location to another. Both types are worth considering when planning alternate communications. Regardless of the variety, faxes provide an excellent way to pass damage information. If planned ahead, the information can be filled out on a predesigned form, with instructions to send the fax within a designated time after the event. Update intervals can even be specified, eliminating the need for any voice communications. A second advantage of using this form of communication is that it provides a written record of the information gathered, which may be helpful documentation for insurance and reimbursement needs afterwards. Further, written information will be more accurate, with less danger of valuable facts being lost in the translation. Fax transmissions are much quicker than verbal communications, thereby lessening congestion while freeing up the people who would have had to pass the information verbally. Moreover, if the fax is provided on a private line, it is not subject to network congestion.

Cellular Telephones

Cell phones proved to be an excellent form of communication following both the Whittier and Loma Prieta earthquakes. However, during the New York City disaster of 2001, cellular was as congested as the regular network. Cellular is a separate network, however, it too can become congested. Like the public network, it is designed for a certain level of capacity. As technology advances, the capability of the cellular network to expand to accommodate the demand is continuing to increase.

It is important to distinguish the type of calls that are placed over the cellular network. Calls from one cellular unit to another within the cellular company’s geography will exclusively use that network. However, if a cellular user attempts to call a landline, such as their home or office, the call will travel through the public telephone network to complete. Once again, those calls can be affected by congestion. Planners need to carefully evaluate how they will be using their alternative communications. In this instance, if the intent is to contact people who are on the public telephone network, they may not succeed.

Satellite-based Pagers

During the New York City disaster, pagers worked when cell phones didn't. This is because many of them use satellite communication, which is less subject to congestion than cellular networks. A system that provides hand-held devices with Qwerty keyboards is an excellent solution for short text messages, as long as the receiver's contact information is know and available to the sender.


Some small businesses are planning to use their radio frequencies for critical communications. Radios are clearly an alternative to the public network, but their use should be planned carefully. Some businesses use radio frequencies daily, and they assume that their radios will be their primary back-up at the time of a disaster. However, when organizations identify in advance who needs to talk to whom, they will find that there are far too many people who need to convey critical information who will be relying on only one or two radio frequencies. In fact, radios can be rendered useless in disasters if proper planning has not taken place. If company officers are planning to use the radios, chances are they will preempt all others from their use.

Amateur Radio

During many disasters, amateur radio operators have been the most effective at relaying damage conditions. They should be integrally involved in the planning process, and used wherever possible in the early hours. The public sector has tapped this resource through RACES, which is an organization of amateur radio volunteers who work with local agencies to perform critical communications functions following a disaster. Some small businesses encourage their employees to become amateur radio operators, and plan to use them as the major link between families and employees if normal communications are affected. This is a very important function if a small business requires some people to remain on the job, or if normal transportation routes are blocked and employees are forced to remain at work.

Data Alternatives

Some businesses are planning to have their employees dial up into their systems from home if a disaster occurs after hours, to receive instructions and transmit critical information. This combination may be using the telephone network from employees’ homes to the main computer, so be aware that there may be congestion on that element.

How to Make Your Plans Work

Although many forms of communication are usable by small businesses during an emergency, the most common shortfall in communications plans is the failure to identify who needs to talk to whom. It is often helpful to start by creating a drawing showing where key people are expected to be. From this drawing, team members can identify what functions they will need to perform, and what kind of communications they require to perform these functions. Once that is established, it is a relatively easy task to survey existing communications, identifying which is best suited to serve the users’ needs. When organizations follow this process, they are pleasantly surprised to find that they already have plenty of communications alternatives, and may not need to spend exorbitant dollars for additional equipment.

It is also important to document these plans so everyone will know who will use what. List all of the critical communications circuits, identifying where they are located, and who is to use them. Anticipate that everyone who knows the plan will not be available, so all information must be clear and easy to follow. Then test the plans to see if they will work. The time to find out whether everyone’s communications needs have been met is not during an actual disaster! It is only through careful planning and testing that organizations will have truly successful communications paths.

About the author:

Judy Bell has been a small business owner for 14 years. She is president and CEO of the Disaster Survival Planning Network (, a consulting firm that works with businesses, public agencies, and schools to create emergency response and disaster recovery plans. Judy is the author of the book, Disaster Survival Planning: A Practical Guide for Businesses, and Small Business Plan Template, a fill-in-the-blank approach to creating business continuity plans.

She is a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), a member of the American Society of Professional Emergency Planners, past board member and treasurer of BICEPP, past president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP), and a member of the Southern California Emergency Services Association (SCESA). She holds a B.A. degree from California State University, Northridge and an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University.

Judy became involved in the industry as a result of her experience chairing Pacific Bell‘s Emergency Operations Committee during a major California earthquake in 1987. She sometimes talks about that fateful day in October when “…I was exiting an off-ramp in Pasadena and experienced the sensation of all four tires going flat. When I pulled around the corner, people were streaming out of buildings, walking dazed on the sidewalks and in the streets. Our Emergency Response Team had their red vests on, and all of a sudden, this wasn’t a drill.” Her practical experience coordinating the restoration of the public telephone network brings unique perspective and valuable insight to others.

Copyright (c) 2002 Systems Support Inc.. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without the express written permission of System Support Inc. is prohibited.