Watches, Warnings & Advisories for Sunflower Co.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I can't call you...

Earlier today, fellow amateur radio operator and blogger Steve, K9ZW, posted this entry on his blog site: Sudden Radio Silence in High Risk Situations.  Click the link, give it a read, then come back for the rest of my entry here.

Reading Steve's article brought to mind the notion that we all need multiple pathways or means of communication.  We may never know whether or not the Boston-area cellular service was intentionally shut down for safety, or if it was simply overloaded.  Based on personal experience, I'm subscribing to the idea of a system overload.  Telephone systems can handle a certain number of simultaneous service requests.  Your local phone system is designed using a mathematical formula that estimates a percentage of all subscribers using the system at the same time.  In other words, there may be 100,000 phones in a system, but it may be designed to only carry 10,000 conversations at once.  Consider how many hours a day your phone goes unused, and you'll understand why systems aren't designed for 100% loads.  Cellular systems are designed in the same way, based on an estimated number of subscriber requests.  It has been postulated that even if you can't get a voice channel on  your cellular phone, you can get a text message out.  This is true, but you may suffer a delay.  Depending on your phone, your text may attempt a number of transmissions, then time out with a fail-to-send message.  If you're not checking your phone, the message will be waiting for you to re-send it.

The military utilizes the mnemonic of P.A.C.E or Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency when formulating communications plans.

Your PRIMARY means of communicating with your family may be via cell phone.  For example, "I'll call you when I get to the hotel."  We all use some system, each and every day, and it works under normal conditions.  This is our Primary.  But what if your battery is dead, or cell service is out?

That's when we need to have an ALTERNATE plan.  Our alternate would accomplish the same goal, but with little impact to our routine.  If the cell phone won't work when you get to the hotel as in our example, the Alternate would be to place a call from the land-line in your room.  At most, we may be inconvenienced by having to find a pay phone, or ask to borrow a phone, but we can make the call without much trouble.  In a perfect world, your Primary and Alternate could be interchanged at any time.

But what if both of those aren't available?  Now we've got to think ahead.  Your CONTINGENCY method would accomplish the task within an acceptable time frame.  It may not be important that we call home as soon as we get to the hotel.  But our family would like to know we made it there safely, say within an hour or two's time of expected arrival.  For most of us, this is where it gets complicated, because all we have is our cell and the hotel's land-line.  Sometimes, it's easier to get a call into an area than it is to place an out-bound call.  Perhaps your Contingency plan involved leaving the hotel phone number with your family for them to call, if they haven't heard from you by a certain time.  Whatever the case, the Contingency plan involves laying the groundwork well before its needed.

Beyond all those, what would be your EMERGENCY plan?  Amateur radio if its available? (yes, that was a shameless plug!  If you're not licensed, you can still dictate a short message to an amateur radio operator, who will send it out.)  Hand-written note via messenger?  Messenger may sound extreme, but it may not be out of the question.  At this point, anything may be fair game.  Most of us don't like to give it much thought, but it is certainly worth your consideration, especially when traveling.

The thousands in Boston this week experienced a communications system failure.  Not because the system was damaged, but because it was overloaded.  Cellular systems can be, and have been, overloaded by high-attendance parades and sporting events.  If you've been to a major parade, major college game, or race, you may have experienced delays in getting calls and messages on your cellular phone, solely due to the increased system demand.  If you add a layer of  crisis, whether from a bombing as we saw this week, or from a sudden thunderstorm or tornado causing damage and injuries, the system demand grows exponentially. 

How do you call home and let your loved ones know you're OK?  Have you thought about alternatives?  How much of a time delay is acceptable to you and  your family?

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