ArticleRisk Assessment Management

Contacting Loved Ones When Disaster Strikes

By October 30, 2008 No Comments

by Judy K. Bell, CEM

Disaster Survival Planning Network

The earth begins to shake. You are at work. Your children are in school. Your retired parents are home alone. The shaking becomes more violent, and you duck under your desk to protect yourself. The first thought that flashes into your mind is, “this is it, the BIG ONE is hitting!” It has struck during work hours, and you are frantic to find out about your loved ones. What will you do?

If you are like most, you will panic and immediately grab the phone to dial. When you pick up the receiver, there will be no dialtone. You will immediately think your phone is dead. You will reach for your cellular phone, but it may not work either.


When the Northridge earthquake struck, I was about 40 miles from the epicenter. Throughout the first day, I waited anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds before I received dialtone. The phones were not broken. They were just overloaded by everyone attempting to call. Every time, all I had to do was remain patient, and I would soon receive dialtone.

For years, radio and TV reports have perpetuated the notion that phones don’t work after an earthquake. In reality, that is far from the truth. Telephone systems are built to process a certain number of calls at any one time. When the demand increases, it just takes longer before they can provide you dialtone. It does not mean that they are broken or won’t work.

In fact, the telephone switching systems close to the epicenter processed almost three times as many calls as normal that day. Yes, there were intermittent problems, but the telephone companies have taken great precautions to minimize service interruption through building structures that far exceed local building codes, securing and bracing all the equipment, providing back-up generators to replace local power if it is lost, and activating dynamic controls within the network to open up outgoing calling pathways within the affected geography.


If you have taken public warnings seriously and properly prepared your family, you will have already identified an out-of-area friend or relative who will act as your contact point. Each of your family members will be carrying the designated number with them, and the school will have it in your childrens’ records as well. Everyone will know in advance that they are to call the distant party to leave word about their condition.


Follow these simple instructions:

1. Have the number you need to call ready.

2. Pick up the phone and wait for dialtone. (Do not flash the switchook – which just sends you to the back of the waiting line.) It may take several minutes, so be patient.

3. When you receive dialtone, immediately begin to dial your number. The telephone equipment will not wait as long as usual before sending a tone back if it doesn’t receive your digits.