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Some thoughts about what to do when the phones fail.

With new technology in telecommunications come new risks. Simple equipment failures or power outages can kill phone lines in large areas. Here are some things to thing about.

If there's a wide spread phone line failure, there's a good chance YOU are the only working communication link in your neighborhood.

If you pick up your line and get no dial tone, blow into the receiver. If you hear a wind sound, your line has voltage, or in Telco terms 'battery'. So there could be a problem somewhere between you and where the dial tone comes from, the telephone company Central Office (CO). Or there could be serious overload in phone traffic. This can happen after a disaster as everyone tries to make a call. If you don't hear that wind sound, it could still be a Telco problem, but more likely it's a cable cut.

Either way, its time to see if you're the only one. Go next door and ask your neighbor to check their lines. If they're dead too, then you might have a wide area outage. It could be everyone on your neighborhood SLC (Subscriber Loop Carrier), maybe 500 people, or everyone on your CO, maybe tens of thousands of lines effected.

If your power is out, check your phone line every 15 minutes or so. Since telephone company equipment is now often power by utility power in the field, you might lose phone service, either right away, or within 4-8 hours, depending on the health of the batteries. Power failures are expected to only increase as generation facilities are already overloaded and new ones are years away.

Step back and think about what this means... something we've taken for granted is gone. No way to reach 911. The security and fire alarms ring on and on with no way to reach anyone that can help. The elderly person's "I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up" unit is dead.

"I know, I'll just get on my cell phone!" Guess, what? Everyone else has the same idea. So the cell sites are overloaded. It may or may not work. If the same thing that killed your neighborhood also feeds the local cell site, you might have to go outdoors to even get into a working cell site.

If you have a crime watch group in your neighborhood, you may already know your neighbors. Either way, go knock on the door of anyone you might suspect is power dependant. Anyone who's bedridden, on oxygen, uses an electric wheel chair... anything that might require power... could be upset right now. Listen out of any whistles, yelling, anything that might indicate that they need help. This may be the time NOT to ignore those house alarms that are always going off. Without phone service, they're not calling the alarm company.

Check in on your local net repeater to find out how much area is effected. Establish communication with someone who has working telephone service. Ask them to stand by in case you need to call them. While they're standing by, they should try to call some key locations in your area to see if they're also having a phone outage. Look for places with the same phone exchange as you and your neighbors have. That can quite a few numbers these days. Places to consider:

911 centers
Police stations
Fire stations

If any of these are effected, i.e., they don't answer, get someone on the net to report to each effected agency. This person, using their amateur radio, will relay messages to and from the field to the agency. With luck, there's a ham station already in the facility. This is the to fire it up. The ham with phone service needs to become your net control. Messages I've handled from a hospital without phone service include:

Call the next shift of ER nurses to tell them to come in early
Get the local priest to come in for last rites
Call a patient's doctor for permission to increase pain medicine

Other hams will need to become the field reporters. They'll need to slowly cruise around the effected area, hopefully with lights flashing. Be alert to people waving you down or yelling for you. Ride with the windows open and the noise sources minimized. You could also position yourself at key locations, like entrances to home developments or major intersections.

If you're technically inclined, you might want to find out where the phone company gets power in your neighborhood. These systems vary greatly, but generally they're referred to as SLCs. If you know where yours is, check the power meter. If it's not moving, then the power is out. Call the Telco repair number on your cell phone along with the address of the SLC and let them know the power is out. From that information, they might send a portable generator sooner. If it's a wide spread power failure, it might take days to get enough generators in town for all of the effected SLC locations. The batteries only last 4-8 hours. So if there's a long power failure, you can almost expect the phones to fail hours after utility power dies. Telco service techs might be spread thin checking the sites. You might want to offer to baby sit a generator if your area gets one. After disasters like a hurricane, unattended generators have been known to roll away.

All of this might seem like a lot of work for something really minor. But think of the times in your life that you've called 911 and really needed it. Think about what you would do if 911 wasn't there. Add a related storm or other disaster and we all place a lot of demands on the 911 system. There's no reason to panic, but there's a good chance you'll be relaying messages for people in need. All this starts with picking up your phone and not hearing a dial tone. Just keep all of this in the back of your mind so you know the responsible thing to do when that happens. And because of changes in telecommunication technology, we really are talking about 'when' not 'if'.

For more information about the power dependent:

31 Aug 2003

    South Florida FM Association, 2003   

National Homeland Security Knowledgebase