As Hurricane Sandy approached, I spent a lot of time doing interviews with East Coast CBS radio stations about how storm victims could keep communications technology working if their power and phones lines failed.
As I covered that horrendous story, I thought about how lucky we in the Bay Area were, enjoying beautiful fall weather along with the Giants' World Series victory. But we have our own form of natural disaster to worry about -- earthquakes. And unlike hurricanes, earthquakes come without warning, so you have to always be prepared.
There was a time when the only communications-related advice was to have a portable radio and plenty of batteries handy, and that is still good advice. When power, cable and Internet lines are down, radio remains the best way to get news and emergency information. And now there are radios that don't even require batteries. If you search the Web for "crank radio," you'll find plenty that have their own little hand-cranked generators, including the Etón FR160Bn ($29.98 on Amazon.com) that offers AM, FM and the NOAA weatherband and includes a flashlight and a USB cell phone charger.
Cell phones can be a lifeline, but they're not always dependable. Batteries drain and the cell towers the networks depend on are vulnerable to damage from wind, rain, falling trees and, of course, earthquakes. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 25 percent of the cell towers in Sandy's path were knocked out by the storm, leaving people nearby without service. While there isn't anything you can do to protect against a failed cell tower, there are things you can do to keep your phone working long after the power fails.
Unless you have an iPhone, which doesn't have a removable battery, consider getting an extra battery that you keep charged up.
Regardless of what model of phone you have, get a battery backup system like an AA charger from Energizer or Duracell or a rechargeable battery pack that works with your phone. And it's obviously a good idea to keep plenty of AA batteries around.
There are also rechargeable battery packs with USB charging ports. If you search Amazon for "portable power," you'll find a number of options, including the Anker Astro3 ($59.99) that supports almost all recent cell phones.
It's also a good idea to have a charger for your phone in your car that you can use if your house power fails. If you have a good car battery, you should still have plenty of juice left to start your car. Your car might not be accessible in an emergency, but these chargers are cheap and worth having anyway.
If you have a laptop, keep it fully charged because its battery can be used to charge cell phones via the USB port.
In the event of an emergency, do all you can to preserve your phone's battery. Dim the screen to its lowest usable level, disable all unnecessary apps and turn off your phone's extra power-hungry radios, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. Unless you need it, turn off data because that too uses lots of power. Also turn off vibrate mode -- another energy hog. If you must leave data on, use the slowest (and most energy efficient) network possible -- 3G is more efficient than 4G and 2G or Edge uses less power than 3G.
Talking uses more energy than texting and texts can sometimes get through even when calls can't. The FCC and FEMA say text messages "help free up more 'space' for emergency communications on the telephone network." The agencies also advise cell phone users to wait 10 seconds before redialing a call" to avoid clogging the network.
I realize that landlines are dismissed by many as unnecessary, but we still have one at our house. Landlines don't require electricity as long as you have at least one old-fashioned "corded" phone. Cordless phone base stations require electricity. What I like about my corded phone is that it's always in the same place (it can't be misplaced like a cordless or cell phone) and there are no batteries to worry about. Of course landlines are prone to failure in a natural disaster but they're one more option and, besides, they're great for calling 911 in a personal emergency.
It's also a good idea for family members to know the phone number of someone out of town who can relay messages. Sometimes long distance calls can get through when local ones can't.
Even if you do all this, you still may not be able to use any of your phones. So have other plans, including a designated meeting place for nearby family members to gather once it's safe.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.