Phones Don’t Work in Emergency

The power went out….the phone line went down….what next?

A log between the Marin County Sheriff and a user on Facebook, warning the user to not call 911 for updates on the cell phone outage. Doing so jeopardizes the entire emergency network.
Marin County Sheriff’s Office log on Facebook. KCBS Radio. Nov. 9, 2021

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My parent’s neighbor has an older phone that plugs into the wall. She lost power when the phone lines went down last month and is worried now that phones don’t work in an emergency. I have a cell phone and during that outage the calls got jammed. But we used a computer and Nextdoor to figure out what was going on.  How can I help this neighbor get better prepared next time? Alix, Belvedere

Dear Alix: It’s great that you are thinking forward and helping neighbors! Some communities have a watch list for those in need,  particularly useful when phones won’t work in an emergency and there’s a need to evacuate. Hopefully that is not foreseeable.

For now,  investigate whether her old style  phone is hard wired into the wall, or is a more modern device that plugs into a wall jack with Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). Telzio says, looks-wise, VOIP phones and analog phones are indistinguishable to the average person and provide the same functionality.

People with VOIP phones think they are safe because they plug into a wall jack. But they are often in triple jeopardy in an emergency. These phones need electricity, fresh batteries, and wireless to work. Until recently, the analog old style hard-wired corded phones had ~ 98.9% reliability. There was a resilient network of copper cables that transmitted voice calls outside the home and office. But today, we send and receive so much more- zoom, video games, banking, shopping, movies.  To deliver that bandwidth most of the  copper cable has been replaced with wireless transmission, fiber optic cable, and satellite service. Telcos sometimes use these too between their own trunk lines and switching offices.

That is all good- until it is not. In an emergency, say an earthquake or severe wind storm, the old phone system called POTS (plain old telephone service) delivered when electricity failed. Today,  the price we pay  for speedy bandwidth is occasional inconsistency due to the interdependence of phones and electrical service. It’s an issue recognized by the FCC and lawmakers. After the 2019 fires, a State Bill was introduced to make sure that wireless companies, Comcast, AT&T, et al. provide 72 hours of backup electrical service at their cell towers.


It’s not just emergencies. The California Office of Emergency Services reports that, on average, there are 15 outages and 255 hours of downtown a month. Most of these don’t create a public disturbance until they go on for extended periods, or in extreme cases, they immobilize calls to ‘911’.  

There appears to have been a cascade like effect during the incident you mention. The damaged cable was connected to a bigger line (called a trunk) and then caused it to fail. People at home tried to use their phones to get Internet service, say as a hotspot. People on the  Internet used their computers to make voice calls, say over Skype. We were all transmitting over a reduced bandwidth of fiber optics and cell towers until eventually there was ‘radio silence.’

Scraping By:

As you mention those who could still get Internet service turned to social media to find out what was going on. The local newspaper, The Ark reports, that a San Francisco  company called “Downdetector” (Parent company Ookla in Seattle, Wa.) was scraping these posts to tabulate the severity of the outage for Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T! It’s ironic that they were using the Internet to gather customer data!

During the phone outage others called into the local police stations or to 911. That began to overwhelm the emergency service lines and compound the problem. Marin has become sort of a poster child on social media for its inappropriate use of 911 calls that day (see image).  It’s not clear that your neighbor’s analog phone would have had greater priority reaching 911 once transmissions got overloaded.

On a personal level, one of the lessons I learned after the 2019 fires was that while many lost electricity for days, there was no PG&E outage just a few miles away in the City. In light of my transportation background, my advice is to  keep your car topped off with a full tank. Alternatively, keep  your electric car on alert with a full charge so you can also use it to power up your home! Use the car radio to listen for updates and when it sounds safe, seek higher ground. The key is figuring out what communities have working electricity. While the electronic tolling on the bridges should be free that day (!) there is real risk from traffic backups and traffic signal outages.

Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 


The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.


Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.


With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.

Teen Ready for Smartphone?

 Is  Teen ready for Smartphone? A sketch with a violet colored background of a cell phone case and a provisional driver's license. Used  to promote idea of a provisional phone for teens.
Teen: Ready for Smartphone? Hello provisional phone!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Dad reads this column aloud to my brother and me so I hope he will see this. I am ten years old and my birthday is next month. I am responsible and accountable. How do I tell my Dad I am ready to have my own smartphone? Emma, Novato

Dear Emma: This is one clever girl! It sounds like you are a preteen on your way to a smartphone. But, quickly do a financial check in.  If you think it will strain your family’s finances, offer to help.

Since you read the column with Dad you might know that I am a proponent of the provisional phone. Newly minted drivers, and you will be one in five or six years, do not get on the road without adult supervision and training. Provisional drivers engage in classroom instruction, then they spend requisite hours practicing on the road with an adult, and finally they must pass both a written exam and road test. 

Even after they earn their license, there are restrictions about driving after dark, transporting other kids in the car, and, of course, a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs.

Hello Provisional Phones!

In my years in transportation, I always thought we should have similar strictures for kids. While some countries ban phones in schools, parents have to come up with their own rules for home and after school.  How do they know if their teen is ready for a smartphone? You can search more of my articles on provisional phones here, but here’s a glimpse.

Cars are dangerous if we go too fast and ignore the speed limits. On the Internet  there is a similar issue: we need to slow down the velocity of our emotional responses and reactions.  What you post is searchable. So a provisional phone might flash a message before we hit send: “Do you need to post this now? Would you want your parents or teachers to read or see this five years from now…” It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the Internet it’s easy to forget.

Deep Speeds

In cars we go too fast, but on the Internet we go too deep. If you are not mindful, chatrooms, Tik-Tok and other media lead you down rabbit holes. They subtract time that you would otherwise spend reading a book, getting outdoors, or just being footloose. Even though we have digital connections, we need to nurture spaces so that we remain productive and creative offline.

Finally, your parents and teachers are concerned about the content you will be exposed to. There is, in practicality, no way to shield a clever teen with a curious mind. You will encounter a lot of “trash on the road” and bad actors who run shady sites. In addition, and this is vital, mental health professionals worry about online teens and peer pressure. Social media makes it easy-peasy to bully someone, post an inauthentic self, or make you envious of  someone else’s (doctored) images. 

The Internet would be a better experience if the other drivers, i.e. people on it had real identities, and we could know when we were being bought and sold.  Classes on digital literacy are a first step and maybe your school or library offers instruction on coding and software too. If you spend time in the sausage factory, seeing how apps are written, then you can inspect them for things like SDKs . You will be wiser and less vulnerable.

Minimalist Phones

Finally, and this is where it all begins- you and Dad should have a discussion about hardware. If it was a car, you might pine for something cool, like a Rav4 or a Jeep.. in phone talk that’s an Apple 11 or later and  a Samsung S21 with 5G. It turns out that there  are stripped down phones, called minimalist phones, akin to the old Fords and Chevys of the car world.

 These minimalist phones  have limited features – often phone, text, and GPS or they grey-scale the display (note the affiliate links if you click through). The Boring phone, is a minimalist phone that began as a New Zealand kickstarter campaign with kids specifically in mind. The Boring phone doesn’t appear to be in stock right now. I am not advocating for any particular hardware- for that matter you could get a flip phone and have scaled down features. It sounds like you are asking for more. I hope it works out, and you will write back about the choices after your birthday.