Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

A picture of World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 and it says 9/11 phone calls from the towers. This looks back on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to phones at that time.
Sept. 11 Anniversary and Phones

This week, on the anniversary of Sept. 11 terrorist attack, we take a Dear Smartphone “time out” to consider how emergency communications have transformed over the two decades since. The inspiration is three-fold:  in last week’s column, a reader lamented the difficulty of getting emergency services in a remote, wooded area; during the week, Apple announced two new I-phone features, vehicle crash detection and satellite service, that will update today’s emergency services.  Third, here on the anniversary of 9-11, we forget that most of us did not have cell phones back in 2001 and that changed everything in terms of our news and emergency response.

Perhaps the most poignant memory from that day is of downtown office workers fleeing the burning World Trade Center on foot, streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge. There are throngs of people rushing out, looking confused, lost, and shocked. Some of the women and men carry purses or briefcases but none of these rushing pedestrians have phones in their hand. When they got off the bridge and reached safer grounds, they would need to find a wired phone or send an email. Back in 2001 the most popular cell phone was the Nokia 3310. These phones were expensive and not an everyday household item. 

But, people needed to connect. So, in 2001 lists were posted physically on buildings and also online with the names of people who were missing both short term, or long term. Again, the emergency system relied on using wired phones and email. Text messages, with luck one that read “I am safe”, were not yet a feature but AT&T introduced it in November of that year. Conceivably it was a feature that the company had planned to debut and the World Trade Center debacle brought urgency to that.


Some  of the deceased were not without mobile phones. In-seat phones were used by passengers on the American and United flights who witnessed their hijacked aircraft. On United Flight 93, thirteen passengers and crew members placed a total of 37 calls, 35 of them from Airfones located on the back seats. Their haunting final conversations are recorded and can be played back.

But, the most haunting memory of that day is not the voice recordings but the pictures. There is one of the second airplane about to hit the Twin Tower, the two buildings obscured in smoke flames, and doomed workers jumping from upper story windows.  Later on, there would be countless images of a waving American flag, fearless first responders, and NYFD cleaning up the rubble. It’s hard to imagine today, but none of these pictures were taken by casual bystanders pulling out their iPhone or Android devices. It took until 2008 and beyond for better picture-taking capability  to be fully integrated into phones. In 2001 the state-of-the-art was a Samsung phone that could take 20 photos with a 0.35 megapixel resolution. Fortunately, there were other sources on 9-11. Downtown Manhattan did not lack for tourists with conventional SLR cameras, there were newscasters and photojournalists in the vicinity, and security officers on the beat. 

These pictures were then shared over newscasts and in newspapers. Broadcast news began filming minutes after the first plane crash and they suspended all other coverage that day. But notably, stories and pictures did not rebroadcast on social media since the likes of Facebook and Twitter did not emerge until nearly twelve years later. Today, pictures from bystanders would be posted in seconds, unfolding news would be sent out in small tweets or lines of text, and there would be a corresponding flare of person-to-person commentary, rumor, emotional outpouring, communal shock, and perhaps panic.


Most likely, today’s young adults have a disconnect. They may learn about 9-11 in school or from their family but have a hard time imagining how different communications were at that time.” B.C.” (before cell phones) people who made it to safety had to wait to find a way to connect and let their loved ones know they where ok. People trapped in the rubble may have died without this capability. So today, 9/11/2022 – emergency communications are vastly improving, as witnessed this week with brand new notification features on the iPhone. Is the world getting safer? It’s hard to know.

In closing, a touch of irony about shared history and memories, “A.C.” (after cell phones). A firefighter who lost his brother on Sept. 11 visited the 9-11 Memorial in New York City, which opened in 2011. At this somber site there are reflecting pools and alongside, etched in stone, the individual names of the people who lost their lives. The firefighter, in his own post, found phone media to be intrusive and callous. He bemoaned the visitors armed with selfie-sticks that visit the Monument, pose, say cheese, smile, click and share.

Satellite Phone and Home Emergencies

On the anniversary of 911- how to reach 911 and more….

An image of the planet earth with five satellite rotating above it. In the near future will we linkup satellite phones and home emergencies on regular cellphones?
Satellite Phone and Home Emergencies

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My son and daughter-in- law live in a hilly, woody area, and their cell phone service can be spotty. Sometimes they get a good signal, and sometimes there is none at all. When I call them, the line often goes dead.  I am concerned for them since it is fire season and they might need to evacuate. On top of that, they are expecting a first baby and might need to get help quickly.  I am used to living out here and mostly prepared, but I don’t think they are so ready. Susanna, Inverness

Dear Susanna: There are lots of online lists that will help you put together an emergency kit as well as prepare the overnight bag for a new mother. What they share in common is a list of contacts to notify! But honestly, it’s challenging to put together an emergency kit for telecommunications, particularly since plain-old-wired phones are less reliable these days.  Let’s first talk about the risk of fires: Although authorities may try to notify you over broadcast networks or through sirens, there is increasing dependence on the cell phone for alerts. What happens if your phone is turned off or runs out of battery?  It means you need to have an extra charging cable in your vehicle, or a power pack ready with the appropriate cords. In more populated areas of Marin and Sonoma Counties you can power the phone back at  police stations or fire departments, and some public libraries.

A few columns ago I answered a question from a  West Marin reader about getting notifications about fires. They were curious about the designated apps like Nixle.  Although there are pluses and minuses to this system- seems like your location data may be revealed and you will receive out-of-area notifications- the plus is that you might hear when to evacuate. Make sure that your cell phone is turned ‘on’ and receives messages even when you go to sleep. (That could be disturbing!) We are all likely, from time to time, to forget to plug in overnight and check the status of the battery.

Speaking of night, babies seem to like to come after the midnight hour. Not sure when the new baby is due (congratulations !) but hopefully later, beyond an announcement that Apple Inc. is expected to make in early September. I will update the column when we hear the outcome- from Apple, that is. Update 9/7/2022= yes, see below!)

Apple is rumored to announced a new feature for the Iphone 14 that has practical use in areas like West Marin. The expectation is that a satellite-based emergency feature will allow iPhone models to send texts in emergency situations, even when they can’t reach a cellular network. This new feature will rely on satellite networks, not on transmitting messages over cell phone towers. The rumor yet again, is that it will work on newer phones, not all of them. Other carriers, like T-Mobile are also said to be working on satellite plans and you can find older geeky details here in TechCrunch.

Satellite phones operate anywhere on earth so dead-spots should be less of an issue. This is valuable if the cell phone towers are damaged in a fire or earthquake. However, satellite service has to pass overhead to send and receive messages. So, you might need to wait a few minutes so that you are positioned in a direct line of service. They can also experience interference from clouds or smoke. I have not personally owned a satellite phone and would suggest that you read the customer reviews carefully before you choose one. My kids have a device that is used for boating and hiking, and it just transmits an SOS signal.  You can rent a satellite phone month by month, or purchase it outright. Perhaps you will want to drop the service after the baby arrives, fire season subsides, and everyone is home safely.

There are similarities between operating this satellite phone and your regular cell phone service. You want to ensure that you have a wall charger for the phone, and all the appropriate cables so that you can either charge up in your vehicles or with a micro USB to your computer. If you plan to keep the phone for future emergencies then consider getting a phone that has solar panels for remote charging. If the phone is tucked away it may not keep its charge. 

Another ‘what-if’ for properly equipping the emergency kit: keep the device’s operating directions nearby, and make a test call so you understand how to make and receive calls. Some services will provide you with a dedicated number for testing. 

In closing, I want to mention that your query comes on the anniversary of the real 9-11. Tragically, a satellite phone would not have saved the 3000 + people who died in the mayhem.  If there was a future terrorist attack directed towards our telcom network and  cell phone towers, the country’s communications network would be crippled. The saving grace could be satellite service delivered via a watch or phone. Thanks for a timely reminder about emergency lifelines.

Phones and Human Memory

A screen shot from an Iphone of the keep messages setting. The choices are to keep messages forever, for one year, or for 30 days.
Phones and Human Memory meet Auto-delete

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I thought I had monkey brain because I was losing items stored on my phone like business cards,  important addresses, and receipts. It turns out that these items were kept in my messaging app and they were auto deleted every 30 days. It was just by accident that I discovered what was happening and took control. This got me thinking about phones and human memory. I am back to using using my phone to collect and store data but do you have ideas of how to do that better? Tae, Millbrae

Dear Tae:  Thanks for sharing this story and I am glad that what you identified as monkey brain was really the phone monkeying around with you. The message/delete function is fairly well hidden on the iPhone so the default settings might easily delete your messages. Information you had planned to commit to storage might disappear- as you observed, addresses,  business cards, and other vitals.

FInD The Message Settings:

The Iphone fix is: Settings>Messages> and scroll far down the page to view Message History>Keep Messages. There you select whether messages will be deleted every 30 days, 1 year, or forever. On an Android device: search under Settings/Text Message Limit, and note the option when messages reach pre-set quantities. The Android system has a helpful  “lock” message that protects messages from auto-deletion.

But to your question, we use more than messaging on our phones to store information and “virtually” extend our memories. For example, taking a picture of where we parked the car with the GPS turned on has become second nature. Or, typing reminders in notes, and then setting the phone’s alarm to ring as a backup.  If there are newer options that try to extend phones and human memory, please send them in.

Extending Brain Power?

The underlying issue is how smartphones impact our capacity to retrieve and recall information. This recent article nicely summarizes the positions. There are a few schools of thought. One is that by offloading things, say low-importance things, we free up our brain to do more useful, high-importance things. Instead of say remembering the date for someone’s birthday, we can look at the calendar entries on our phone, or  see the reminders on Facebook. But, a different view is that this reliance on our phone has a neurological component. In the spirit of “use it or lose it” prolonged use thins out the gray matter density in the brain and has negative effects on general cognitive functioning. Smartphones are relatively new, and so is the science to track this- albeit the thinning gray density is said to have been observed in the ABCD study tracking adolescent brains.

An observation I personally find compelling is made by authors Catherine Price (How To Break Up With Your Phone) and Larry Rosen/ Adam Gazaley (The Distracted Mind). On our phones we are continually multitasking. Our brains have to transfer memories from short-to-long term storage, and constant interruptions  impede the process. That’s because we best remember things that we pay attention to. An interesting study of architectural features compared users who relied on cameras versus those who were cued to pay attention. It was the attention level, not pictures, that mattered.  Most of the time when we use smartphones we seldom pay full attention to anything. Not even to something as important as driving. 

Memory Connect:

Smartphones can be a useful place to put information, perhaps not that different from the notebooks or diaries that we used to jot things in. For some users they bring improvements since programs like Obsidian or Zotero can hold collections of things and link them together. But it takes time and concerted effort to find these software features and learn how to manage them. If, instead, we rapidly jump from app to app, we’ll risk being the monkey brain getting lost in the jungle. The positive side as I see it, is that you were mindful to what you were missing and stumbled on the phone’s settings. Even better,  once you found the memory disconnect you kindly shared the tech tip.