Thousands of residents are without power after Hurricane Michael barreled through the Florida panhandle and across Georgia Wednesday and Thursday. Telephone lines are down in many areas. Some people have reported spotty cell phone service and internet service in Michael’s aftermath, likely because of the continued power outages. Yet others, perhaps only a few miles away, report reliable cell phone service and internet service.
What should you do if you are without communications? It is probably to late to fix the problems now but you might want to be prepared for the next outage. After all, Michael won’t be the last hurricane to visit the Florida panhandle and Georgia. Several apps for your smartphone can improve your preparations. They also have many uses besides hurricane emergencies.
Perhaps the most popular app for communicating during disasters when telephone service and even cell phone voice service is unavailable is called Zello.
Zello is a fast and simple walkie-talkie app that works over Wi-Fi or your phone’s cellular network. It provides worldwide conversations. Quite a few cities’ and towns’ 911 centers monitor Zello during local emergencies, waiting for requests for assistance.
Zello also works as a backup to regular fire, medical, and law enforcement two-way radio systems that become inoperative due to power failures, flood waters, towers blown down by high winds, and other disaster-related problems.
Zello first gained fame during the 2017 hurricanes that hit Houston and New Orleans. Hundreds of volunteers used their bass boats, all-terrain vehicles, and other means of transportation to rescue neighbors from flood waters. Much of this was done by an informal ad-hoc volunteer groups comprising of private boat owners who assist in search and rescue efforts in Louisiana and adjacent areas. These groups were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and reactivated in the aftermaths of the 2016 Louisiana floods and Hurricane Harvey. They are credited with rescuing thousands of citizens during those disasters. You can read a lot more about the Cajun Navy by starting at https://duckduckgo.com/?q=%22Cajun+Navy%22&t=h_&ia=web.
The Cajun Navy needed communications to receive calls for assistance and to dispatch rescue crews quickly as well as to coordinate the efforts of medical and law enforcement personnel. There wasn’t enough time or money to go out and purchase hundreds of two-way radios, along with the needed towers, emergency power generators, and more equipment needed for all the communications.
Since almost everyone already had cell phones in their pockets, purses, or on their belts, the Cajun Navy volunteers simply downloaded and installed the free Zello app.
Voila! The Cajun Navy volunteers had all the communications they needed. The local cell towers remained in operation and served the Cajun Navy volunteers well.
With Zello, you will need some sort of data connection to the outside world. However, Zello even works on very weak cell signals. Even better, it digitizes the voices and sends the communications over cell phone DATA connections, not over bandwidth-wasting voice connections. That doesn’t sound like much of a big deal until you realize that data connections are much more efficient than voice connections. That is, your voice is digitized, compressed, and then sent or received in short bursts, not as a continuous connection.
The result is more efficient use of a single operating digital data channel. In other words, Zello and similar apps can squeeze many more conversations into a single cell phone channel. That is a big deal when cellular towers are overloaded with users trying to communicate with family and friends. Using Zello greatly increases the odds of having a workable connection, even during the busiest times.
Once your family and friends have the app and sign up, you can put them all in one big private group. From then on, the system works as if everyone had their own walkie-talkie radio. Press a big virtual microphone button, and everyone in the group will hear what you’re saying in real time.
Of course, Zello does require SOME SORT of cellular data or wi-fi connection. If you have no connection at all, Zello won’t help a bit.
Another app, called Firechat, is best for those who are in close proximity but may be in a shelter or doing things in different rooms. It uses peer-to-peer connections over wi-fi or Bluetooth, no cellular connection is needed. However, it does have one huge drawback: it can only communicate with other Firechat-equipped phones within 200 feet or even less distance. You can’t use Firechat to call your relatives in Poughkeepsie. Still, you can communicate with other Firechat users nearby.
Another method is called the Serval Mesh, developed for the New Zealand Red Cross. However, the Serval Mesh is more complicated and also can communicate only over short distances.
You can find all these apps in the app store for your phone.
Another solution, even more reliable than the above solutions, is to purchase a satellite phone now and have it ready for use before the next emergency. Satellite phones have proven to be very reliable during emergencies. However, satellite phones are VERY expensive. I doubt if many people will purchase one “just in case” it is needed.