What do a bridge collapse and the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl have in common? If you were there, odds are good that you couldn’t use your phone.
Emergency Cell Phone Outage #1
On May 23, 2013, a truck with an oversized load crashed into the bridge structure on I-5 near Mount Vernon, WA. Aside from the bridge being taken out of commission, disabling traffic flow in the Interstate for almost a month, there was another issue: cell phone voice traffic came to a standstill.
How did that happen? Were all of the local cell towers built on top of the bridge? Did the truck also somehow hit a cell tower before taking out the bridge? Did an important communication cable run across the bridge? How could a truck hitting a bridge take away the ability to make a phone call?
The truck didn’t take out a cell tower. Everyone in the area afterward did. Everyone tried making calls at the same time, paralyzing local cellular phone systems. It was that easy. No earthquake, tornado, sun spots or alien attack required.
Emergency Cell Phone Outage #2
In 2014, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Washington fans were excited, to say the least. They were so excited, in fact, that on February 5, 2014 about 700,000 came to Seattle, into the same area at one time, to congratulate the team. In doing so, while calling their families, texting their friends, and updating their Facebook pages, they nearly took out downtown Seattle’s cell phone service. This was after cell phone companies, anticipating significant additional usage, upped bandwidth and brought in additional, mobile cell towers. In addition to significantly degraded service, it appeared that 911 service was being seriously impacted, and officials were so worried that they started making announcements, asking people to stop using their phones, to allow for emergency voice traffic.
What is your emergency communication plan?
The moral of the story (aside from “Stay away from sensationally-broken bridges and crowds of over 500,000 people”) is no surprise to a reader like you: You can’t always rely on your cell phone, especially if you are in or near an emergency that is bigger than your personal situation. Consider getting a radio to round out your communications toolset!
Of course, the naysayer would point out that if everyone had radios, those airwaves would be clogged up too, especially in an emergency. Probably true, but don’t worry. That won’t happen, no matter how often I or any other radio-pushers recommend. 🙂
I don’t mean to sensationalize radios. They’re no panacea. We know that in the days of yore (e.g. before the 1990s), people were indeed able to survive without cell phones or radios, even if the absence of a texting, selfie-snapping, web-surfing smartphone is unimaginable for some folks. Regardless, if you have a serious need to keep in touch with someone no matter what, definitely consider a radio for your backup plan.
Here’s another opinion, from the Seattle Times Article referenced below:
“Kyle Moore, public-information officer for the Seattle Fire Department, said he’s always getting laughed at for using an ‘old-school pager.’ But he gets the last laugh knowing his device will respond in an emergency. ‘If the cellphone towers go down, this pager works,’ Moore said.”
Personally, while a pager is a radio of sorts, I’d rather have a ham radio, and some (e.g. Yaesu VX-3R) are about the size of a pager (if you remove the antenna). Just sayin’.
For more details, see links to the parade and bridge outage articles below.
You can read more information on the Seattle near-outage here: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022854455_cellfailurexml.html.
This is the only article I saw mentioning that cell communications were impacted: http://www.goskagit.com/news/reports-bridge-collapses-between-mount-vernon-burlington/article_52637dd0-c417-11e2-bf59-001a4bcf887a.html.
About halfway down the article, you’ll see: “Daryl Hamburg, manager of operations for Dike District 12, said cell phones are not working at the moment except for texts. Hamburg said people are everywhere.”
If you’re interested in more background on the collapse, you can get the low-down here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-5_Skagit_River_Bridge_collapse. Note there’s no mention of communications being impacted at the time of the incident!