September is National Preparedness Month and while being prepared is a mindset and not really something you can observe once a year, it does bring the concept into sight of the general population in an easy to understand format.Being prepared doesn't make you a Prepper, a Survivalist, or a Looneytoon. It used to be called Common Sense. Tens of thousands of Boy and Girls Scouts recite it as their motto.
Communicating in an emergency can be challenging at best and all but impossible at worst.When you look at past incidents such as when Super Storm Sandy hammered NY and NJ, the bombings of the Boston Marathon, 9/11 attacks, or the recent earthquakes in CA you'll find that communication networks are fragile (they are grid power dependent after a certain amount of time) and can be overloaded by volume. Communication was strained for weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina.
So, how will you get in touch with loved ones or help when things get dicey?
No power? No problem
Our telephone system has been rather independent of the power grid since it's inception. Local power outages didn't effect land-line phones, because the switching stations sent power through the wires that carried the signal to the customer. So as long as the power was on where there, there was no problem. If you're my age, you probably had the ubiquitous big black phone with a rotary dial that Grandmas everywhere invariably used when the power went out to call you to see if "lights were on."
Our land-line system today is basically the same, with this important difference; most phones (the unit you talk on) today require power. My wife's desk phone needs power to function. It has a 9v battery backup, but that's more to keep settings and the voice-mail message in memory than anything. Cordless phones also won't work once their battery is drained.
Luckily, the battery life of our cell phones will get us through the day (in most cases multiple days if we lay off the Candy Crush.) The cellular network has backup power at critical points and usually gives uninterrupted service through short lived emergencies. Text messages use less battery life than voice calls per amount of data communicated. However, be mindful to be brief and concise in texts to preserve battery life (and have a better chance of the text going through during times of high volume.)
All of that said, the simple double duty wall/desk phone from Walmart for $9 may be your best bet. If the phone lines are up and if the power is on at the switching station you should be able to place a call.
Volume (or 11 is one more)
Ok, not that kind of volume, but call volume (and 11 would still be one more.) In an emergency, the number of calls spikes dramatically. "...all circuits are currently in use..." or even incessant ringing isn't what you want when you're trying to call the Fire Department to report a fire or your sister to see if she's alright. What to do?
If you do get through, keep your call short. Be concise. Tell them who's calling, why you're calling, what your plan is, and when you will call again.
"Hi, Mom? It's me. I just wanted to let you know I'm alright. Yes, the Zombie Horde seems to be right down the road. No, everyone here is fine. I'm headed to the National Guard Armory to help out. If all is well, I'll call you again within an hour either side of 8:00pm. Don't worry. I love you. Bye."Why is it important to let them know when you will call again? Because under stress time passes slowly. 5 mins after you call they will wonder why they haven't heard from you. Then they will be tempted to try to call you to check in, adding to the call volume.
Counter-intuitively, lines to locations out of the immediate area are often open. Calling someone in another state can give you a common contact point and a way to relay messages that you might not otherwise have. Here is a great example. Note the scheduled times to call. This prevents one person from interrupting the others call to Aunt Jane. It also lessens the amount of worry sent your direction when you're not actually speaking with the contact.( I suggest you follow the link in this image to preparednessmama.com. She has a great article that mirrors what I'm talking about here. I didn't see it until this was almost complete though, so...)
Texting and email
As mentioned before, texts are good alternative. They will often go through when a call won't. It's a function of bandwidth. The amount of space on the airwaves is finite. Taking up the least amount space means you may just squeak through where a "bigger" communication might not. Also, texts are sent in short bursts and the system can "fit them in" when it gets space.
Emails are similar. Most of our phones can email. While your email system doesn't interact directly with with the cell network, if you're sending from your phone the data travels the same path as a text. However, it can be sent in "packets" or broken up into smaller pieces and sent to your email system. You might have better luck if you are in an area with power and can get onto the internet. That way you using a different part of the communications net.
FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are inexpensive and easy to operate. Note: a license is required for GMRS radios, but not FRS. There range is limited though. The range on the package is in optimal conditions. There are NO optimal conditions in the real world. Remember the 36 mi listed on the package is "line of sight" and depending on the terrain, you could be down to a mile or two, maybe less if you're in the concrete jungle. But these could be just the thing if you live in a small town and you want to keep in touch with those staying at home while you at work, or picking the kids up from school. They really shine when you are taking a road trip and caravaning with more than one vehicle. They might even give you peace of mind if you have a large property and you need to go about checking on things.
HAM Radio (Amateur Radio) has a longer reach. All the way around the world when conditions are right, you have the right equipment, and you know what you're doing. Cost can be between $35 for one of the most popular hand radios in the country (the Baofeng U5r) or multiple thousands for setups that can chat a world away. HAM Radio goes well beyond the limits of this post. I suggest you visit the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) for more info.
Here are some examples of the radios available. Check with a local radio club to see which might be best for your area and planned use.
Remember, we prepare not so we obsess over these things, but so we don't have to worry about them. Stay safe and Be Prepared