Efficient Use of Workplace Telephones after Disaster Strikes

You are at work, your children are in school, and your elderly mother is at home alone. The earth begins to shake. Quickly, you duck under your desk to protect yourself. The intensity increases, and the first thought that flashes into your mind is, "this is it, the BIG ONE is hitting!" The unthinkable has happened. It has struck during work hours, and you are frantic to find out about your loved ones. How will you reach them?

The situation doesn’t have to be an earthquake. A plane crash, major hazardous materials spill, train derailment, bombing, or other unexpected event can suddenly create an overwhelming demand on the public telephone network. You can take steps now to build into your organization’s recovery plan the proper ways to use your communications tools.

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.

If you are like most, however, you will panic and immediately grab the phone to dial. When you pick up the receiver, there will be no dial tone. You will immediately think your phone is dead. Now what will you do?

For years, after each major disaster, the notion that phones "go dead" has been perpetuated by reports heard on the radio and TV. In reality, that is far from the truth. Telephone systems are no different than the computer you use daily at work. They are built to process a certain number of calls at any one time. When the demand increases, it just takes longer before they can send you dial tone. It does not mean that they are broken or won’t work.


When the Northridge earthquake struck, I was about 40 miles from the epicenter. My telephone number was in a different area code, served by a different local telephone company. Throughout the first day, I waited anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds before I received dial tone. I received it every time. The phones were not broken. They were just overloaded with people attempting to place calls.


The telephone network is designed based on the amount of traffic it expects to carry during the busiest hour of the day, which is equivalent to approximately 10% of everyone within that area dialing a making or receiving a call during that hour. Now, when a regional disaster hits, what percent of people do you think pick up their phones? I can assure you it’s much more than 10%. And in the case of an earthquake, the earth movement may also knock the receiver off, which makes the telephone switching equipment that someone is asking for dial tone.

In fact, during Northridge, the telephone switching systems within the disaster area completed almost three times as many calls as normal that day. Sure, there were some intermittent problems, but within a few hours, service had been restored everywhere. Only one community of 1500 people who were located in a rural town about 30 miles away were isolated. They could call anywhere within their community, but they couldn’t make or receive calls outside their local community. The cause was a broken gas main that exploded, burning the facilities to the community. Telephone companies located in earthquake areas take great precautions to minimize service interruption through building structures that far exceed local building codes, securing and bracing all 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.


Has your organization taken the same precautions with the communications equipment it has installed at your location? In the United States before 1984, few if any organizations even thought about their telephone service, because most leased it from their telephone providers. In today’s environment, everyone has the ability to install their own equipment right at the worksite. Yet very few have taken any precautions at all to protect this extremely costly asset.

Daily we hear horror stories of communications equipment at business locations that fails due to inadequate back-up power (you should have both UPS and a generator if you plan to use your system for any length of time after a disaster), collapsed flooring under the switch (all raised flooring should be braced in earthquake areas), water damage (tarps should be stored near the equipment for quick containment of damage if sprinklers are activated), damaged back panels by someone inadvertently working around the area (equipment areas should be secured with limited access at all times), lengthy switch outages (system tapes and databases should be backed-up regularly and stored off-site). I’m sure you get the picture. The list of stories goes on, and on, and on.


Provide instructions in advance to let your employees know how to best use the network. The instructions below can be incorporated into your plans and emphasized when training employees.

Before the Disaster:

  • Designate a contact point at work for messages if employees will need to let you know their status.
  • Have each employee provide you and their family an out-of-area contact name and number. This may be the only way to reunite employees with their families or let relatives know someone is injured.
  • Have employees inform their relatives not to try to reach them. They will get word to them via their designated out-of-area contact.
  • Pre-designate where employees are to report to work if normal communications are overloaded. This prevents having to use calling trees which add to the congestion on the telephone network.

Immediately After The Disaster:

  • Check all telephones to verify the receivers are properly on their hooks.
  • Use your phone only for emergency calls.
  • If you have to make an emergency call, pick up the receiver and listen for dial tone. It may a few minutes. (Do not flash the switchhook - that just sends you to the back of the waiting line.)
  • Be ready to dial your number when you hear the dial tone. (The telephone equipment will only wait half as long as usual before sending a tone back if it doesn’t receive your digits.)
  • If you receive a call from someone out of the area, have them inform your out-of-area contact point that you are O.K. This will eliminate your need to make the call.

Until Full Communications Are Restored:

  • Continue to limit your use of the phone. It may take several days before the increased calling subsides.
  • Following an earthquake, aftershocks will occur. Do not use the phone unless you have an emergency. Every aftershock creates a resurgence of use on the phone network, causing additional congestion.
  • Keep your out-of-area contact informed at reasonable intervals. (Remember, the best time to place a call is between 10 PM and 6 AM when other calling has subsided).

The secret to using your phone successfully is knowing what to expect, and making each call count. Be sure to include instructions on how to reunite employees with their families.


If a disaster strikes after normal work hours, or if you send employees home initially, then want to let them know later where and when to report for work, many organizations are using the telephone network more effectively by setting up an 800 number with voicemail capability. Employees are given a wallet sized card to carry with them at all times. When an event occurs, they are instructed to call the 800 number between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM to listen to the information on the 800 number. Individual departments that want to provide different instructions for their employees change their group’s voicemail message by 10:00 PM.

By having employees call during the night hours when traffic on the network has significantly decreased, they should have no problem getting right through. In fact, the very first night after the Northridge earthquake, all controls were out of the network between those hours. Of course, the next morning, after everyone woke up, congestion began anew. In fact, for the first week, the network continued to experience congestion during the day hours, causing network dynamic controls to be activated. Each significant aftershock, of course, brought a new onslaught of calls as everyone rushed to check on loved ones and friends.

This technique is an alternative to setting up calling trees that speeds up communications and keeps everyone informed of the current status. Instead of each leader making multiple attempts to reach everyone on their list, each person is responsible for calling in at their own convenience during the designated hours to obtain current reporting or other key information.


The latest disasters have provided opportunities for people to use new communications technologies uniquely. Immediately following Northridge, on-line services such as AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy were flooded with messages from families trying to reach loved ones. A typical message might read "My aunt lives at 2220 Califa Street, and I haven’t been able to reach her." A couple of minutes later, another message would show up saying "We checked on her already, she’s just fine". We saw these services provide a similar role that amateur radio has played in prior events. Of course, they’re using the public network to call their service provider, which adds to the congestion, so this alternative may not work well in the future now that on-line services have become a popular pastime.

Apply this idea, though, to your own organization. Do you have an e-mail system that is on your LANs? Why not predesignate a specific e-mail address to receive injury and damage reports from outlying offices? You can even design in advance what information you want to receive, such as the number of injuries, evacuation and utilities status, damaged equipment, or requests for additional on-site assistance. If you don’t have e-mail, how about creating a form that can be faxed between the hours of 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM to your EOC or wherever damages will be assessed? Print the fax numbers and instructions right at the top, so at the time of the disaster everyone will know what to do and where to send the information.

Other solutions can provide greater flexibility in your network. Products such as Primary Rate Integrated Services Digital Network (PRI), Frame Relay Service, and Switched Multimegabit Data Service (SMDS) are just a few. As your organization moves forward in its strategic planning, use business opportunities to build in more diversity into your own network. Use your communications equipment wisely to speed up recovery efforts instead of hindering them. Plan today....survive tomorrow!

About the author:
Judy Bell, CEM, is a Retired Division Operations Manager at Pacific Bell, and President of Disaster Survival Planning, Inc., Port Hueneme, California 93041, (805) 984-9547 Fax (805) 984-2601, Website: www.disaster-survival.com

This article was originally published in the 1996 American Society of Professional Emergency Planners ASPEP Journal.