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Wildfires, Tornadoes, Floods, Intruders: 4 Ways Your Phone Can Save You in an Emergency



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Your phone is an essential and potentially life-saving tool that you probably have with you at all times.

Angela Lang/CNET

Our phones are the center of our social life, but they can also help save lives in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. Should you get stranded on the side of the road, locked in your house or facing an intruder who makes it impossible to call 911, the Android phone or iPhone in your hand is a potentially life-saving tool.

In 2019, a young man’s life was saved after he had an asthma attack and called 911 from his Android phone. Despite not being able to communicate with the operator, his location was forwarded to the call center and help arrived on time. 2017, a 4-year-old saved his mother’s life just by asking Siri to call for help. And calls to order pizza can help victims of domestic violence alert the police.

These extreme examples underscore the role phones can play in preventing the loss of life when situations get out of hand. Which wildfire season and hurricane season are here, it is even more important to prepare for the unexpected. Police and first responders are also realizing that our phones are an essential tool in emergency situations.

We spoke to the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado for advice and tips on the many ways a phone can literally be your lifeline.

Read more: Emergency preparation: 3 tips to recover important documents after a natural disaster

Natural Disasters

Wildfires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes can destroy buildings and critical utilities in just minutes. The damage can last for days and weeks, with power grids and cell towers shutting down.

Whether it’s an unexpected event or one you’ve had to prepare for, here are some tips for getting help:

  • Send text messages instead of trying to call: Between damage to cell towers and power lines, and the strain that will put on the network if first responders focus on an area, getting a phone call will be hit and miss. However, text messages require much less network resources and have a higher chance of going through.
  • Natural Disaster Apps and Services: From hurricane monitoring to reuniting with friends and relatives, there’s an app to help you deal with just about any natural disaster.
  • SOS apps: The Apple App Store and Google Play Store have a wide variety of options that use the flash signal from your phone’s camera to send an SOS in Morse code, such as the free Flashlight & More Utility for iPhone and Super-Bright LED Flashlight for android.
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Storms can knock out power grids and cell towers in just seconds.

Ricky Arnold/NASA

Stranded in the wilderness

To save your phone’s battery as much as possible, turn off apps and services that aren’t helping you, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. When there’s no cellular coverage, Airplane mode keeps your phone from constantly searching for signals, saving precious battery reserves.

GPS works offline to find you

  • Importantly, you can still use your phone’s GPS functionality even when it’s turned on Flight mode.
  • When planning a walk, apps like GAIA GPS download an offline map of the area you are in, then use your phone’s GPS to locate yourself. I tested the app on a iPhone XS Max and Pixel 3 XL and sometimes it took about 30 seconds to locate me but in the end it worked fine with no cellular coverage.
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Take adequate precautions in the wilderness.

Photo Alliance

Discover facts about edible plants

Unless you know a lot about plants, chances are you don’t know what’s safe to eat when you need food urgently. You have a few options:

  • Download the Wikipedia app and save the Poisonous Plants Wiki for offline viewing. It’s not the best solution, but the list includes photos and brief descriptions of plants that can cause damage.
  • On Android phones, Google Lens can help identify unfamiliar plants if you’re in an area with wireless reception, but beware of poisonous lookalikes — Lens is not a certified botanical tool and should not be relied upon. We especially warn against eating wild mushrooms or berries.
  • However, an app like Lens can be useful for general information such as which part of a common plant is digestible – and internal links lead to more information. Keep in mind that Google Lens can drain your battery.
  • Download a regional specific app, e.g. “Colorado hiking and planting”, to provide more specific information about local plants.
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Texting 911 is an option to keep in mind.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Burglary or Active Shooter

The first thing to do after realizing that someone has broken into your house or that there is an active gunman nearby is to hide and turn off all sounds on your phone. Dim the lights or switch to dark mode. Android users can quickly mute their phone in the quick settings panel and iPhone users can use the mute switch.

In addition, go to your phone’s settings app and disable all vibrations, including keyboard and touch vibrations – vibrations can be heard, especially if the phone is resting on a surface.

Rely on text messages to alert someone from the outside what’s going on. Ready.gov has more suggestions for preparing for an active shooting situation.

Depending on where you live, texting 911 may be an additional option. The FCC maintains an up-to-date spreadsheet of cities that support text-to-911. The list is updated once a month. I recommend searching the spreadsheet (Cmd+F on Mac or Control+F on a PC) to find the city or state you’re in or going to visit to see if they support text-to-911.

If you try to use SMS-to-911 and it is not supported in your area, you will receive a message back letting you know that no one has received your message and you should call. If it’s not safe to do this, text trusted and responsive contacts so they can call on your behalf.

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Your phone’s voice assistant can call for help, even if your phone is across the room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When you can’t physically call for help

  • iPhone users should be able to say, “Hey Siri, call 911,” while Android users should be able to say, “OK, Google, call 911.”
  • Make sure you have Hey Siri enabled on your iPhone to Settings > Siri > Listen to Hey Siri. If you’re on Android, long-press the Home button to open the Google Assistant and say, “Set up Voice Match.”
  • When you’re home and a Amazon Echo both nearby and an Echo Connect, which allows your Echo to call for you, you can use Alexa to call 911.
  • A Apple Watch Series 4 or newer device please set built-in fall detection which will call for help when it detects a fall and the wearer does not respond.
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Only share your location with those you fully trust.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Other ways to be prepared: shared location, emergency contacts, batteries

  • Consider sharing your location with trusted emergency contacts. For an iPhone, use the built-in Find my app. Use this on Android Location sharing feature in Google Maps. The third-party Glympse app does the same.
  • Set up emergency contacts and medical information. On the iPhone, use the Health app. On an Android phone, consider adding your own name or medical information as a contact, or download an SOS emergency app. On the Pixel 4, use the built-in Personal Safety App.
  • If you’re lost, emergency services can use nearby cell towers to determine your location, so keep a portable battery or power bank convenient for charging your phone — store it in your backpack, car or other gear. Your phone will last longer if you disable features that drain your battery.

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