5 Ways to Use Your Cell Phone to Your Advantage During a Weather Disaster

Media studies faculty member Elizabeth Ellcessor is working on a book about emergency media in the digital age.
September 13, 2018

As a child of the 1980s, Elizabeth Ellcessor knew exactly what to do in the event of an emergency. “My parents told me to call 911 – and I was capable of doing that,” she said.

Today, as Hurricane Florence batters the southeastern U.S., the protocol isn’t quite as simple.

“We don’t have a landline phone,” said Ellcessor, now an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “So if my kids were going to call 911, they’d actually have to know how to do the correct swipe on my iPhone and get into the emergency settings and so on.

“There’s a different set of procedures and different way of doing things. Digital media systems have transformed the landscape of how we rely on the media for information and assistance in emergency situations.”

A challenge has been bridging the old methods with the new ones.

“A lot of times when you see the official emergency preparedness information, they have media recommendations like, ‘Have an FM radio,’ and lots of my students not only don’t have an FM radio, but have probably never actually used one that wasn’t in a car,” Ellcessor said. “So you have this advice that is valuable, but not necessarily relevant.”

It is in that vein that Ellcessor – who is working on a book about emergency media in the digital age – offers five tips on what you (and your cellphone) should do in a weather-related disaster.

Stay Off Your Cellphone

“I think the struggle for a lot of people who are avid technology users is the temptation to live-tweet your situation, to be constantly posting, constantly checking and seeing how your friends are doing and so on – and I totally get that,” Ellcessor said. “But I think it also has the effect of draining your battery and it clogs the cell towers with an awful lot of traffic, which makes it harder for people who are trying to send urgent messages. Mark yourself safe on Facebook once, post if you have some sort of novel information or you personally need help in your area. Don’t just check and refresh, check and refresh.”

Follow the Leaders

If you are on Twitter, follow reputable accounts, such as the National Weather Service and local sources, such as local governments, emergency offices or campus resources.

Purchase Portable Power Blocks – and Make Sure They Are Charged

“They look like little hard drives,” Ellcessor said. “You just plug them into the wall overnight and they hold a charge for a couple days, which you can use to recharge a phone or laptop.”

Enter Emergency Contact and Health Information

“A lot of phones have “health” or “emergency” information settings, where you can set up an emergency contact or note any ongoing health conditions, which would be useful if you were injured or unconscious,” Ellcessor said.

Activate Alerts

“All phones are capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts that come through government channels that use a different network than the standard cell network,” Ellcessor said. “However, a lot of people turn these off because they can be annoying. So if you know you’re looking at a potential event, you can go into your notifications settings and make sure that you turn them back on.”

Ellcessor also recommends signing up for alerts from the power company, and, in addition to relying on UVA’s emergency alert system, using the Charlottesville-Albemarle County system, an app called CodeRED.

“You don’t want to be in the middle of the disaster thinking about how you’re going to get this information,” Ellcessor said. “These things require some forethought and preparation, but can help you manage information during the disaster.”

Media Contact

Whitelaw Reid

University News Associate Office of University Communications