Phones & Disaster

twitter posts from California fires (Sept. 30).

Dear Ms. Smartphone: It’s a disaster. My wife and I had to evacuate our home this week because of nearby fires. Now I am getting inundated with texts and calls from far-away friends and distant relatives who want updates. I know that we should be grateful, but we are getting worn down responding to each message and reliving the trauma. It’s just so emotionally draining. Can’t these people just wait? Moira and Myron, Sonoma

Dear M & M: The primary thing is safety, and as you said, you are thankful you made it out. It is stressful wondering what you left behind and if you can go back. It is hard to settle in a temporary locale and pick up the pieces.  And then there is your social network, reverberating. There is no digital etiquette here and no rules of response.

Inflamed Media

The people who are calling mean well but they  are probably “inflamed” by social media. It’s hard for someone far away and without information to not react to what they see and hear on social medial. See the picture (above). It got reposted 73 times and there were 186 people who “liked it”. Perhaps someone who called you viewed these pics- what they saw is unfiltered and unedited.  ‘Citizen- journalism’ as this is called is useful but it lacks the perspective, distance, and context we get from a professional newscast. 

This type of reporting is enabled by our smartphones, as they allow us to take “on the spot” photos and send “in the moment” texts. The speed of the citizen journalist has to be balanced with the slower, but more comprehensive reporting of traditional news media. But, that’s not for your friends and family to sort out. It’s a larger societal issue about how we use media and the sources we find trustworthy and useful.

For now, consider using your smartphone to take a quick picture of your safe relocation, maybe with family or pets?  Then attach the picture to an email or text with a canned greeting that says, “ As you can see, we safely evacuated on (date) and are now back in (location). Not to worry. We will get back in touch when the dust settles and the ashes subside.” Or, post it to your Facebook page. It’s a digital reaction to a digital blowup.

Confront DIgital With Digital

While you may feel like silencing your phone, remember that these devices are incredibly useful during a natural disaster. You probably received the alert to evacuate over your phone, not from a public address system or a neighbor knocking on the door. You probably found the safest, least congested route to leave by consulting the GPS enabled traffic map. Note in the image (above) there is useful information for evacuees needing meals. Consumer Reports (CR) recently published a list of digital tips for electronic devices during an emergency. Among them are keeping your devices fully charged- with public safety alerts turned on, having a car- charging cable, stashing an extra power strip, and abstaining from power hungry apps and settings that drain the battery, such as WiFi on the road.

CR goes on to say that if you need to call 911, don’t hang up. During a disaster, the phone queue can be long. In some locations you can text to 911, but emergency officials caution that a conventional call from a 911 call from a cell phone or a landline should be your first move, not the Facebook plea for assistance. (Editor’s Note, added Nov. 2021: Use your phone to reach 911 if you need emergency or medical assistance. Do not use it to inquire about the status of the outage! That jams up the lines and the ability to dispatch first-responders. The end-run to Facebook brings us right back to the original question you posed. 


In closing, note that many people are not aware that the phone network and electrical power are interconnected. When the electricity gets knocked out, many landlines work not operate because the  backup batteries fail, or more centrally, the fiber-optics are compromised. Placing a call from any device may depend on connecting to a  cell phone tower but it could be damaged too. The telephone companies and cable crews are the new first-responders.  God bless in the coming days.

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