Prepare Phones if Natural Disaster

“We interrupt our normal column to bring you this Emergency Broadcast…..”

When you prepare your emergency kit don’t neglect the phones. The lightning strikes that have set off fires in Northern California this week are a wake-up call. While phones and telecommunications have been a lifesaver during the Covid panedemic, their role is even more vital during a natural disaster, like a fire or earthquake. They are the fragile link to stay on top of evacuations, to dial 911, and reach contacts.

They are fragile, because if the electricity gets knocked out, many phones will not be able to send or receive messages. In the 2019 fires in California, crucial notifications went unsent, and people in disaster areas were without communications.

This year (2020) there is pending legislation (SB431) and a plan from the state Public Utilities Commission, but neither will solve the issues for this Fall.

Smartphones To Rescue?

If you have a smartphone, and most people do, there are a few steps you can take, but they will not guarantee your safety. If you have recently moved, sign up to receive emergency notifications from the local county and utilities. Then, keep the phone charged and prepare a means to recharge it on the fly, like your car, a household generator, or an inverter cable tied to an electric car battery. Some people recommended keeping a spare older phone with a solar charger in your emergency kit, just for dialing 911.

LandlineS to Rescue?

You might think it prudent to keep a landline alongside your smartphone as redundancy matters. But the danger is that, during the October, 2019 fires, landlines failed too. It turns out that ‘POTS’, Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, depended on electrical power and used the same transmission as smartphones.

Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station. Today, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables, even for the landlines.

The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, now use fiber optics to link between stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages.

Stay Informed!

Under normal, everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. During the pandemic, telecommunications have been the lifeline that supports the ability to work from home, have classes over the Internet, and engage in Zoom meetups.

Now, when we face a crisis on two fronts, both a natural disaster and a virus pandemic, we need telecommunications more than ever, and we personally need to stay resilient and informed.

Booking Trips for Parents?

Breaking news! Aug. 20: An appeals court has allowed ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft to continue treating their drivers in CA as independent contractors while an appeal works its way through the court.

This is a California registered Prius sporting a lot of stickers supporting AB5 for Uber and Lyft drivers.
Fewer ridesource cars… more stickers!
photo credit: Pymnts.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:   A few months ago, your column mentioned booking trips for parents with the smartphone app and that has been a lifesaver. My Dad lives out-of-town and needs to get to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. He likes the independence this gives him even though he has a flip-phone. But, I notice that there are fewer Uber and Lyft vehicles on the road now because of the pandemic. Do you think I should hire a personal driver? Honestly, this could not come at a worse time for us. J.S., San Francisco

Dear J.S.: So true-  you can book a ride for your Dad, and give him wheels when he doesn’t have keys. But, as you note, because of the pandemic there are fewer drivers on the road and economic activity has dialed down. Surely Dad will wait longer to get a ride. But, before you wait your turn on Uber or Lyft, perhaps there is a non-profit that will help? A friend of mine runs a charity that provides free medical transportation for cancer patients in Massachusetts.

If this charity was here in California, there could be problems beyond the economic slowdown and fewer ridesource drivers.  Beginning August 20, the ridesource (aka, ridehail) services might shut down because of the state’s AB5 law.  The law specifies that Uber and Lyft must classify their drivers as employees, and provide benefits like a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and more.  Uber and Lyft have fought the ruling and say that more than 80 percent of their drivers are part-time and work less than less than 40 hours a week.

Finding Alternatives:

But, back to Dad. You should prepare well in advance of his appointment and contact the medical office. They often work with transport providers and Medicaid. Ironically, those contracts may be with UberHealth and Lyft, like the charity I mentioned.  Medical facilities should be able to offer links to community resources, to social workers, and local councils on aging. Just be persistent!

But, if it’s affordable, maybe you should indeed contract with a  driver looking for outside gigs. Medical vans do not tend to be as convenient as Uber or Lyft, and the scheduling needs to be done hours, if not days in advance. Riders say they feel a loss of control and freedom.

Voting Your CHoice:

But, you and your Dad get a chance to weigh in, assuming you are registered to vote in California. On the November ballot Proposition 22 creates a hybrid category for rideshare drivers that will keep employee benefits lower. Meanwhile, Harry Campbell, a ridesource industry insider, has given a nod to an insurance company called ‘Kover’ which already provides health insurance and layoff insurance for drivers. Campbell’s own quote, based on his revenue, was $61.00 a month.

The “time-out” for Uber or Lyft, if it occurs, will not last forever. Campbell reports that their business quickly restores once they come back into the market. What I worry is that people like your Dad who depend on ridesource will be the most impacted. Not only do they need a trip to the doctor, but well-being also depends on having local, connected travel. Sometimes the trip to the doctor is essential, but so is the visit to get an ice-cream cone. 

Are Drivers Less Distracted?

Photo of a car dashboard showing the steering wheel and a face mask dangling from the rear view mirror
Distraction in cars still happens…

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Just curious. Traffic seems better because there are  fewer cars on the road. But, now that we are all staying at home more, are we  less distracted when we get in our cars too?  Tommy, San Francisco

I get your point that people are spending so much time at home during the quarantine so perhaps they are safer when they go out.  Maybe they have done social media catch-up before they left the house so less need for distracted driving and phone conversations in the car? Or, maybe they just want to experience getting out, without a tether to tech. Some people may want to leave their phones at home because of the embedded tracking issues. Not really sure, however…

If they do place or answer calls from their car with Bluetooth enabled speakers hopefully these will be short, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ dialogues. They will leave the cognitively challenging talks for back home- the discussions about marriage and divorce, bankruptcy or medical reports.

How did I get here?!

We all have had times when we traveled from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ in a semi-autonomous haze. We are so wrapped up in what we are saying that we travel without actively noticing our surroundings. The public has the hardest time comprehending that cognitive distraction can occur when using hands-free, bluetooth car tech. Often, we equip our cars with state-of-the-art communications, but we travel even less safely.

Perhaps Covid will bring us greater self-awareness, from the task of wearing a face-mask when we are around others, to having greater respect for other drivers on the road, assuming we enforce both rules. Traffic accidents and crash-related deaths were halved in California when the shelter-in-place began. Tragically, traffic fatalities have returned to last year’s levels, because of excessive speed on open roads. 

If we are out and about these days, we all need to slow down, remember to wear masks, and be aware of others well being, as well as our own.  Distraction comes in many forms.