Phone Outage

When a disaster strikes, what’s the first thing most of us do? We pull out our phone and call those we care about to make sure they’re okay and safe. Then we assess the situation, and talk about how to respond. In essence, we’re creating an ad hoc family emergency response plan. After a few minutes and a couple of phone calls, you’ve decided what needs to be done, who’s going to do what, and how you’re going to do it. Even though there’s still an emergency situation, you have the comfort and confidence of knowing that your family has a plan and will be okay.

But what if you couldn’t make those phone calls, and your family had never discussed how you would respond to a disaster incident in your community?

It’s 2:13pm on a Tuesday afternoon in January. The sky is currently clear, and temperatures are ranging from 45° during the day down to 30°at night. A recent winter storm has left about 2″ of snow on the ground in most areas of Whatcom County, although the majority of roads are clear and local schools are operating on normal schedules.Jim, who works for a local utility company, is out in the field checking on some equipment to see if it was affected by the recent storm. His wife Patty is at work in downtown Bellingham. Their two older children, Matt (age 14) and Amber (10), attend their local middle and elementary schools a little over four miles from their home in the north part of the county. Their youngest child, Julia (age 3), is at a daycare about two miles from Patty’s work.

Suddenly, the ground starts to shake violently. Patty realizes an earthquake is occurring, and she quickly gets under her desk to protect herself from any falling items inside her office. Jim is driving along Hwy 542 when it feels like all four tires on his truck have gone flat at the same time. As he slows to a stop and pulls over, he starts to recognize the cause of the weird motion isn’t his truck, but the ground. Just then, another driver passes Jim, then swerves out of control and crashes into the ditch next to the highway about 200 yards in front of Jim’s truck. By now, the ground has stopped shaking, so Jim gets out and runs up to the other vehicle to check on the driver, not realizing he left his phone in the center console of his own truck.

Patty climbs out from under her desk and reaches for her phone. She dials Jim’s number and hears the familiar ring, but he doesn’t answer. At the same time, about 35,000 residents of Whatcom County are doing exactly the same thing: using a phone to call a loved one and make sure they’re okay. Many of them are able to connect their call, but as more and more of them attempt to connect to the system, it becomes overloaded. Within 60 seconds, thousands of people trying to call someone they care about cannot complete their call, because the phone system isn’t able to handle so many simultaneous calls.

After checking on the other driver, Jim reaches for his phone, and quickly remembers he left it back in the truck. He races back there to find a missed call from Patty. He tries to call her back – but hears a message that “all circuits are busy.” At least he knows she’s probably okay. But now what? Should he go to her office? Should he go pick up the older kids from school? What if Patty isn’t okay – but instead was calling to say she’s trapped under something? “What do I do,” Jim wonders. “What do I do?”

Patty is frantic. “Why didn’t Jim answer the phone? He always answers his phone,” she thinks to herself.

Jim, Patty and their kids will eventually reconnect, but only after several agonizing hours of not knowing how or even where they all were. Patty walked to her 3 year-old’s daycare, and ended up staying there to help the overwhelmed staff care for the other children until their parents could pick them up. Jim was able to drive to pick up his older kids from school. After not finding Patty at home, he then drove back into Bellingham to Julia’s daycare, where they were finally re-united. At the end of the day, though, there was a lot of anxiety and guess work done by Jim and Patty. But if they’d done some disaster planning before that day – much of that anxiety could have been avoided.

We’re often separated from our loved ones during the course of a normal day. Parents are at work, kids are at school, grandparents may live in another city or state…and all of you may be separated by many miles. With the day-to-day convenience of mobile phones, we expect to be able to push a button and immediately connect with our loved ones. But in a disaster – or even a small scale emergency, the tele-communications network that both landlinde and mobile phones rely upon can be disrupted, taking away our ability to connect with our friends and family.

When you sit down to develop your emergency preparedness plan, consider what an average day for your family looks like, and start by asking the question: what do we want each of us to do assuming we can’t communicate with each other?