Cellphones Fail. Should You Have a Landline Phone for Emergencies?

A widespread outage of mobile phone service shows the necessity of emergency backups when your phone doesn't work.

The Washington Post

February 23, 2024

4 Min Read
911 on dice

During an AT&T Wireless service outage Thursday, multiple cities' emergency services suggested using a landline if you need to call 911.

You might have thought: What landline?

Only about a quarter of American households have a landline phone. Last year, about three-quarters of calls to 911 were made from a cellphone, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

But mobile phone service doesn't always work. (Landlines also fail sometimes.) For safety in emergencies like outages of electrical power or cell service, should we have a landline to call for help?

After talking to experts, my conclusion is probably not — at least for most of us. But it's worth making a backup plan in case you need help, or just to call the burger place when cellphones fail.

I have advice below on how to call and text during cell outages.

Moments like Thursday's wireless service outage also show that our fast-changing technology habits are a challenge to the capabilities of 911 services. Here's what you need to know.

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How to call and text when you don't have cellphone service:

— If you have WiFi at home or work, you can typically route phone calls and texts that way. And if your WiFi is turned on, emergency services know where you are even if the call doesn't go through.

Related:At&T’s Outage Twists up Its MWC Story

To turn on WiFi calling for an iPhone, go the Settings app and tap "Cellular." Look for "WiFi Calling" and turn it on.

On Android phones, try tapping the Phone app. From the three vertical dots in the upper right corner, select Settings. Select "Calls" and then "WiFi Calling." Turn the setting on if it isn't already. (The instructions may vary depending on which Android model you own.)

— Use your phone's SOS service: If your cellphone service isn't working, check if you have the "SOS" icon in the upper right corner of your phone. You can still dial 911. And with some newer iPhones, there's an option to route emergency requests over a satellite connection.

Have a backup cell provider in your home or a neighbor's: Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA, an organization that represents 911 agencies, said that he's planning to chat with a group of neighbors about which cellphone providers they have. That way, if one person has Verizon and that provider has an outage, she knows to reach out to a neighbor with T-Mobile.

You can also consider having a second cellphone or Apple Watch on a different cellphone provider from your primary mobile phone.

Use a calling app like WhatsApp, Zoom or FaceTime: It won't help you reach emergency services, but if you want to call a buddy and have internet service at home or a coffee shop, you can still call and send messages.

Related:10 Tips to Secure Your Wireless Network: Protect Your Network from Unauthorized Access

DO NOT call 911 to "test" if your phone is working. Some emergency systems said they were getting calls Thursday from people checking if their cellphones could reach 911. Don't do that. "If you can successfully place a non-emergency call to another number via your cell service then your 911 service will also work," Massachusetts officials posted on X.

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Not long ago, just about every call to 911 came from a landline phone number that was associated with your address. Emergency services knew where you were even if you couldn't speak.

Now it's more complicated.

Emergency services have to try to pinpoint where you are if you're dialing 911 from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, or if you're on the 14th floor of an office building and not the 2nd. Emergency responders get automated 911 calls from Apple Watch devices and crash-detection services in cars. In some places, you can text 911.

Most of the time, 911 centers know where you are. But sometimes they don't.

"You're hitting on the deepest problem in 911," said Jacob Saur, administrator of Arlington County Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management in Virginia.

Tom Wheeler is one of nine former FCC commissioners who recently asked Congress to fund a digital modernization of 911 emergency response systems.

They say the modernization will let emergency agencies always know your exact location, show responders the floor plan of a building on fire, and give medical teams the ability to do video call assessments of car crash scenes.

Some 911 systems have those capabilities today. Others don't.

"In our everyday lives as consumers, we have incorporated the benefits of digital technology," Wheeler said. "Why haven't we incorporated it into public safety?"

(Wheeler said he's an investor and adviser in RapidSOS, a company that provides technology to 911 centers.)

Shira Ovide, The Washington Post

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