What do a bridge collapse and the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl have in common? If you were there, odds are good that you couldn’t use your phone.

Emergency Cell Phone Outage #1

On May 23, 2013, a truck with an oversized load crashed into the bridge structure on I-5 near Mount Vernon, WA. Aside from the bridge being taken out of commission, disabling traffic flow in the Interstate for almost a month, there was another issue: cell phone voice traffic came to a standstill.

How did that happen? Were all of the local cell towers built on top of the bridge? Did the truck also somehow hit a cell tower before taking out the bridge? Did an important communication cable run across the bridge? How could a truck hitting a bridge take away the ability to make a phone call?

The truck didn’t take out a cell tower. Everyone in the area afterward did. Everyone tried making calls at the same time, paralyzing local cellular phone systems. It was that easy. No earthquake, tornado, sun spots or alien attack required.

Emergency Cell Phone Outage #2

In 2014, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Washington fans were excited, to say the least. They were so excited, in fact, that on February 5, 2014 about 700,000 came to Seattle, into the same area at one time, to congratulate the team. In doing so, while calling their families, texting their friends, and updating their Facebook pages, they nearly took out downtown Seattle’s cell phone service. This was after cell phone companies, anticipating significant additional usage, upped bandwidth and brought in additional, mobile cell towers. In addition to significantly degraded service, it appeared that 911 service was being seriously impacted, and officials were so worried that they started making announcements, asking people to stop using their phones, to allow for emergency voice traffic.

What is your emergency communication plan?

The moral of the story (aside from “Stay away from sensationally-broken bridges and crowds of over 500,000 people”) is no surprise to a reader like you: You can’t always rely on your cell phone, especially if you are in or near an emergency that is bigger than your personal situation. Consider getting a radio to round out your communications toolset!

Of course, the naysayer would point out that if everyone had radios, those airwaves would be clogged up too, especially in an emergency. Probably true, but don’t worry. That won’t happen, no matter how often I or any other radio-pushers recommend. :-)

I don’t mean to sensationalize radios. They’re no panacea. We know that in the days of yore (e.g. before the 1990s), people were indeed able to survive without cell phones or radios, even if the absence of a texting, selfie-snapping, web-surfing smartphone is unimaginable for some folks. Regardless, if you have a serious need to keep in touch with someone no matter what, definitely consider a radio for your backup plan.

Here’s another opinion, from the Seattle Times Article referenced below:

“Kyle Moore, public-information officer for the Seattle Fire Department, said he’s always getting laughed at for using an ‘old-school pager.’ But he gets the last laugh knowing his device will respond in an emergency. ‘If the cellphone towers go down, this pager works,’ Moore said.”

Personally, while a pager is a radio of sorts, I’d rather have a ham radio, and some (e.g. Yaesu VX-3R) are about the size of a pager (if you remove the antenna). Just sayin’.

For more details, see links to the parade and bridge outage articles below.

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You can read more information on the Seattle near-outage here: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022854455_cellfailurexml.html.

This is the only article I saw mentioning that cell communications were impacted: http://www.goskagit.com/news/reports-bridge-collapses-between-mount-vernon-burlington/article_52637dd0-c417-11e2-bf59-001a4bcf887a.html.

About halfway down the article, you’ll see: “Daryl Hamburg, manager of operations for Dike District 12, said cell phones are not working at the moment except for texts. Hamburg said people are everywhere.”

If you’re interested in more background on the collapse, you can get the low-down here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-5_Skagit_River_Bridge_collapse. Note there’s no mention of communications being impacted at the time of the incident!

73,

Andrew AB8L

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Why mess with amateur radio? What’s cool about it? Why put in the time and effort, just to talk to someone, especially when you already have a phone?  Take a deep breath and the answers will be revealed… There is more here than meets the eye.

1. The Cool, High-Tech Gear

Amateur radio doesn’t look quite like this any more.

I’ll admit, at first I was intrigued mostly by the gear. I’m a gadget guy at heart, and I’ve always been fascinated by the latest, coolest gizmos, from smartphones to one-handed fire-starting devices, LED flashlights, and titanium multi-tools. And at first, I thought amateur radio gear was all old-school, nearly antique technology, walkie-talkies with huge antennas or big desk radios with multiple knobs and dials and an accompanying, huge chrome microphone like they used in the old days (see picture).

And I was partially right. There are walkie-talkies and big desktop radios. But the technology has been changing constantly, and I found those changes fascinating. The amount of change isn’t in the same order of magnitude as with massively-popular smartphones or high-resolution, flat-screen, 3D TVs with built-in Internet applications, but there have been big changes, including increased popularity of digital technology such as APRS and D-STAR, software-defined radio, and (tongue in cheek…) the use of 20th-century technology such as USB connectors in desktop and even some handheld radios.

Modern handheld radios are loaded with high-tech features! (Kenwood TH-D72A)

Nowadays, you can get small and very powerful radios jam-packed full of cutting edge circuitry. They don’t come with video-games, but they will transmit and receive all manner of radio signals very, very well. And for the hard-core gadget junkies among you, some of the hand-held radios even come with built-in GPS and Bluetooth support. :-)

2. Open New Doors

Barring the destruction of our telecommunications infrastructure, amateur radio will never be as popular as texting, playing word games with friends, taking pictures and video, or listening to music on the latest, coolest phone. But radio still has allure, and not just because of the radios themselves. Now you’re wondering… if it’s not just about the gadgets, the apps, the bling with the two hundred million dollar advertising budget, what then?

It should go without saying that any serious prepper should have radios and know how to use them, SHTF, TEOTWAKI and all. But we’re talking about relatively common scenarios in which ham radio plays a vital role very often.

Do you like to help people when they’re in trouble? At the scene of an accident, are you the type of person who will call 911 instead of taking pictures with your phone? (I just talked to someone the other day who took pictures with his phone as a fire burned a nearby building. Nobody called 911 for several minutes, and he didn’t even think of it until later. Yes, there are people like that. But if you’re reading this article, you most likely aren’t.)

Amateur radio is frequently used in emergency situations in which normal communications aren’t sufficient, either because they are unavailable (e.g., tornado or earthquake destroys or temporarily disables normal communications infrastructure), overloaded (not enough cell phones to go around, towers or land-lines overloaded), or you just need a well-trained communicator to do the talking.

Local ham radio operators, as well as operators from out of the area, through local organizations such as ARES or RACES, the Red Cross, and other groups, volunteer in disaster areas to help people in need. You could do this too, if this type of volunteering floats your boat.

Are you not ready for that much stress? There are other ways to volunteer that are much easier. Consider the many options to get involved in your community when everything is “normal.” For example, event organizers very frequently recruit local ham radio operators (usually through clubs or emergency communications groups) to help at events such as foot races, bike races, parades, walk-a-thons, etc. These events are usually very complex to organize, and hams play a vital role in ensuring messages get transferred rapidly and efficiently, people are safe, and problems are identified before they get too serious. Aside from being a great way to practice using equipment and getting to know how it will work in which locations and situations, these events are usually a lot of fun anyhow.

3. Learn Stuff You Should Know Anyway

The great sci-fi author Robert Heinlein wrote:

 “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.”

While he didn’t say “A human being should be able to operate a radio,” I bet he would have included it if he had more room. Many other important things didn’t make the cut, so ham radio operators shouldn’t feel slighted :-). And while I’m not a famous writer like Heinlein, I am a writer, so I’ll say this (and quote me all you like!):

“A human being should be able to operate a radio.”

Yes, everyone should have a basic idea of how to operate a radio. There are some simple things you should know, for example:

  1. Push the button and talk into the radio, then let go of the button so someone can talk back
  2. Yelling doesn’t make a radio transmit with any more power
  3. Listening usually uses a lot less power than talking (and most people should probably listen more anyway)

But there’s bonus material. Everyone should also have a very basic understanding of what electricity is, what radio waves are, and how an antenna is used. We don’t need to know that on a day-to-day basis the same way we need to know to tie our shoes or how to not overdraw the checking account, but it’s still good information, and radios are a part of our world. For example, cell phones are radios…

Another thing people should know about, which ties back to number two on the list, is who will be available to help in an emergency. Do you know who your emergency communications (emcomm) volunteers are in your area? How about the location of your city or county emergency operations center? And an even better question… would they let you in to help in an emergency? Go get an amateur radio license, volunteer for the group, get a fancy access badge, and you’re in!

Don’t forget one of the biggest reasons of all.

It’s fun!  The people are great. The technology is cool. The opportunities to learn and help others are endless. And the hobby is fun.

Enjoy!

 

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Contest: Free Book, Free Ultralight First Aid Kit!

May 20, 2012

TweetWinners Announced! Update – 6/11/2012: We have winners for the May/June contest – Bob Willey (1st aid kit) and Ralph Dutcher (signed copy of “Personal Emergency Communications”) - congrats to both of you! For everyone else, you may win something yet.  There will be more contests. I have more great stuff to give away to my […]

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Still No Emergency Communications Plans? EMCOMM West Update

May 19, 2012

TweetDo You Really Need a Personal Emergency Communications Plan? You tell me. I recently wrote an article titled “A Chink in Your Emcomm Armor“, in which I described the need for people in emergency communications roles of any kind to have personal emcomm plans, in order to ensure they would be available in an emergency, […]

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Personal Emergency Communications – Now on Sale!

May 5, 2012

TweetI’m happy to announce that my next book is now available! If you have family, friends or anyone else you care about and want to be prepared to weather the next power outage or even a natural disaster, Personal Emergency Communications is a must-read. Written for the layman (no radio interest or expertise required!), I’ll […]

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A Chink in Your Emcomm Armor?

May 5, 2012

TweetLaw enforcement, fire, medical, emcomm team members, Emergency Operation Center managers, other emergency services personnel and managers, business continuity (BC) or continuity of operations (COOP) coordinators, please pay attention. Being able to use most of your key emergency plans in a serious event will depend on what I discuss next. Have you tested emergency response […]

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Free Chapter of My Upcoming Emergency Communications Book!

February 19, 2012

TweetAs you may know, I’ve been incredibly busy lately, working on my next book. It isn’t a sequel to “The Road Home” (I’m starting that in March!). Instead, it’s a nonfiction book this time, on emergency communications for “regular folks”. I wrote it with the intent of making emergency communications at least a little bit […]

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Midland XT511 Review – A Great Piece of Emergency Communication Gear

January 22, 2012
Thumbnail image for Midland XT511 Review – A Great Piece of Emergency Communication Gear

TweetI’ve written about some other radios, and have discussed various amateur, FRS/GMRS, and other two-way radios, but the Midland XT511 is one of the best options out there when it comes to very basic, general emergency communication equipment that requires no license or training. Here is a quick run-down on the features packed into this […]

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Ham Radio Books – Which Ones Do You Need?

January 9, 2012

TweetIs Ham Radio a mystery to you? Have you ever looked at the various books on the market and wondered which ones would actually be useful?  Or are you like me, and wondering which books you’ll be able to understand?  I learned the hard way that some of the books on the market are not […]

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The Secret to Getting an FCC Amateur Radio License in Record Time!

November 30, 2011

TweetGetting your ham license is easier than you think. If you want to be able to use the fancy radio gear that the hams get to use, participate in a local emergency communications team, be prepared to communicate with family and friends even when your cell phone or land-line service disappears, or do the many […]

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