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.
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.