Posts Tagged ‘satellite phone’

Emergency Communications Revisited

Thursday, October 5th, 2017


Cell phone no signal

Hard to imagine: “Puerto Rico residents still without communications, now into third week . . .”

But it was hard to imagine that the U.S. would be hit by back-to-back-to-back hurricanes and flooding, too.

Emergencies happen. Overnight they can turn into disastersAnd if you’re caught in the middle, you want to know what’s happening and be able to reach out to let others know what’s happening.

It’s time to take another look at personal emergency communications.

What you’ll grab first – your cell phone!

Since most people have their phone within reach 24/7, it’s likely to be your first choice in an emergency. Phones can connect with family, receive electronic alerts, and come up with what to do in case of disease, traffic jams, etc.

Cell phone tip: Pre-program your cellphone with important emergency numbers (police, fire, utilities) and create a “group” with family members so you can reach them all quickly.

Your cell phone is an important tool, as long as it’s working.

Three reasons why your cell phone may not work in an emergency:

  1. Cell phone towers are pretty sturdy, but can be damaged and even knocked down by big winds or a big earthquake. Result: no service at all.
  2. Service can be overwhelmed by too many people trying to use it at once – ex., the Boston Marathon. Result: busy signal.
  3. Your phone may, and eventually will, run out of battery unless you have made provisions to keep it charged.

Three ways to have a better chance of getting through. 

  1. Text or tweet instead of calling. These messages need far less bandwidth and can be “stored” in the system until they’re deliverable.
  2. Send your message or call your out-of-town family contact instead of local friends or family members. Naturally, this arrangement has to be set up in advance.
  3. Carry a battery back-up for your phone – one of the power banks or a solar charger – to give yourself a better chance of eventually getting through. Some emergency radios can charge a phone, too. (Want more on batteries, power banks or solar chargers? Here’s an Advisory covering these devices.)

 No cell phone? Don’t forget to try a land-line.

When a power outage has crippled communications, a simple phone attached to a landline may still have a dial tone. Of course, you have to know whatever number it is you want to call!  (That’s why you have memorized a few numbers, right?)

And as we’ve said many times, the operator answering your cell phone 911 call only knows approximately where you are, particularly if you are in a high-rise building. A landline pinpoints your location.

Facing a longer term outage?

Puerto Rico has been cut off for weeks. But not EVERYONE there is cut off!

Three kinds of emergency communications are being used there by people who were prepared in advance of the storm.

  1. Short-reach walkie-talkies. Depending on the quality of the instrument, the weather and the terrain, battery-operated walkie-talkies can connect people across the street or across town.We recommend that all families and neighborhood emergency response groups consider getting their members walkie-talkies (with extra batteries). Even small children can master their use easily. See a couple of examples below, and take another look at our updated Walkie-Talkies Reviews to see if you are considering adding walkie-talkies to your emergency supplies: Walkie-Talkies/ 
  2. Wider-reach HAM radios. This is the one option mentioned more than any other by the professionals in my LinkedIn group. Over 3,000 ham radio operators have been active in Puerto Rico since the hurricane hit. They have been assisting the American Red Cross to gather records about survivors, transmit personal messages to families, and help dispatch power authority crews. (Article: Amateur Radio Volunteers Aiding Storm-Ravaged Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands)You can get started with a HAM radio for less than $100, but realistically you’ll probably want a better device and additional equipment (power supply, antenna, etc.) so budget for more. Joe is a licensed HAM operator and wrote more about the radios and training, here:
  3. Satellite phones for world-wide connection. As the name suggests, these phones use satellites to carry their calls. When cell towers are down or you are so far from civilization that there are no towers (mid-ocean? Antarctica?), this might be your best bet for staying in communication.As you might imagine, it costs a lot more to own and use these phones. Prices for most devices themselves (some rather like a clunky cell phone, others more complex, like a computer with handset) range from $500 to $1500 or more. Prices for actually using the phones start at around $40/month at the low end, or you can buy by the minute. More details here.

Examples of hand-held emergency radios

Most emergency radios are compact, though they are heavier than a regular cell phone. And, they will require practice before you can tune them successfully. Don’t think they are terribly expensive.  Most of them cost less than the latest Apple iPhone.  Some examples are below. Click on the image to go directly to Amazon for full details and current pricing. (We are Amazon affiliates. I’m happy to refer you there because items are almost always available and prices are often better than anywhere else.)

Baofeng -- Basic 2-way dual band HAM radio; VHF and UHF; costs around $70-80. Yaesu -- Mid-range quad band HAM radio. Submersible. Yaesu makes several; this one costs around $500. Irridium Satellite Radio. Click on image and go to Amazon where you should read the reviews, particularly the one about Alaska. Cost around $1,000.

And here are a couple of examples of walkie-talkies. We own and have used both models; the Uniden is what the members of our Neighborhood Emergency Response Team use and practice with every month. Click on the image to get details at Amazon.

Good basic walkie-talkies. Great for local group, family or workplace. Easiest-to-manage buttons. Cost around $40 a pair.I like these because they're yellow and not so hard to locate in an emergency! Alkaline or rechargeable batteries; NOAA weather channels. Cost around $70 a pair.

If a radio and/or battery charging device sounds as though it makes sense to you, get started on your purchase now. It’d be hard to find someone selling one during a disaster.

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. An upcoming Advisory will be on serious solar panels designed to drive all these communications devices.  If you haven’t signed up to get ALL the Advisories, do so now! (Fill out the form below!)

Ultimate Emergency Communications Device

Monday, October 13th, 2014

PowerOutageIn earlier Advisories we’ve talked about how best to communicate during an emergency when the power is out. Here’s the likely drill:

  1. First, try an old-fashioned landline; it may work when your rove-a-phone doesn’t.
  2. Try your cellphone. But if lines are overloaded, you won’t get through there, either.
  3. You’re down to option #3, a text message. Because it requires so little bandwidth, it may get through. But if cell towers are down, too? No luck.

So what’s the one phone that is most likely to ALWAYS get through?

You guessed it – a satellite phone!

The sat phone bypasses wires and towers altogether, shooting straight up to one of the satellite networks positioned 500 to 1,000 miles above the earth.  Given their position, the satellites are seldom affected by storms and thus won’t be impacted by whatever has hit your local community.

I thought I’d really only seen satellite phones in the movies. Typically, they were boxy and big, with an awkward antenna. And they seemed to appear mostly in the hands of the government, military or quasi-military, and usually on a ship somewhere.

Over the past few years, however . . .

sat phone technology has become refined and phones are now found in the hands of civilians around the world.  (So I may have seen one without realizing it!)

There are a number of companies offering the service, with phones that are now not much bigger than your cell phone. (You can see two of the most popular, the Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro Satellite Phone and the Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone at Amazon. Each looks to be about half-again as long as a typical cell phone, and to weigh about twice as much.)

Different services, high prices.

Although the different networks work differently, and have different coverage and quality, they do have one thing in common:  a relatively high price.

To buy the phone, expect to pay between $500 and $1500.  That’s just for the phone itself. You can pay more to get more features, like GPS, tracking, Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities. Most basic models allow you to send and receive text as well as email messages.

In addition, you need to pay for airtime.  You can prepay for the time or you can buy a monthly contract. Satellite airtime can be less expensive than cellular roaming rates, or a whole lot more (up to $10 a minute!), depending on which service you have. So, it’s back to knowing in advance just what you need the phone for!

Other things to keep in mind:

  • A satellite phone won’t work inside a building. It needs access to the sky in order to “find” the satellite.
  • The antenna needs to be extended, so you can’t put the phone in your pocket and expect to know when you’re receiving a call.
  • Phone numbers seem to be more complicated. It reminds me of the work-arounds we used to see, where people dialed a local number to get to a trunk line and then another number to get to their desired party.
  • There may be dead spots, depending on where you find yourself. Trees, jungles, buildings and mountains can block signals.
  • Audio quality may not be as good as what you’re used to.

Even with all these imperfections, satellite phones have become standard equipment for business and for governments. A temporary rental (day, week or month) is easily managed over the internet, with the phone shipped right to you at home. Again, read carefully to be sure you get the accessories and the air-time bundle you need.

When it comes to emergency response, you may want a satellite phone for a particular period of time (say you’re going on a trip), for a season, or all the time.

It’s the ultimate in communications reliability.

As you consider your emergency communications needs, don’t overlook this technology. It could be the insurance you want. (Paying $6.50 for a minute of hearing your child’s voice – priceless!)

(My thanks to author Marc Weber Tobias, whose article in Forbes was the basis for much of what I have written here.)



Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. If you have used a satellite phone, let us know your experience!