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Phone home

The best way to contact family members during an emergency

When Congressman Bob Ney got word that a plane had splintered the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he had two thoughts: beating it out of the Capitol building and calling his wife in Ohio. But his cell phone was jammed, the street pay phones gave him dead air, and even the line he borrowed at a local business offered the refrain of the day: "All circuits are busy."

As a last resort, he e-mailed her on his BlackBerry. Within seconds, it flashed her response from Ohio. "OK. Call when you can, we're worried, love, Liz." A few weeks later, Congressmen Ney, who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, ordered more than 400 BlackBerrys for members of the House.

As counterterrorism officials declare the "near certainty" of retaliatory attacks on the United States (because of war), Americans are revisiting a question raised on Sept. 11: What's the best way to connect with your family quickly in an emergency? As some panicked Americans top off their gas tanks and stock up on plastic sheeting, many are taking a fresh look at the gadgets that jam their pockets.

But what worked — and what sputtered — on Sept. 11 may not be a good indication of what would perform well in a future crisis. Communications technology has changed dramatically over the past 18 months. Some BlackBerry handhelds, for example, which performed spectacularly that September day, have been redesigned. The latest models may be just as subject to jamming as regular cell phones if networks get overloaded.

And gadgets that choked on Sept. 11 are likely to offer better service in a future attack. Over the past year, cell phone companies, including Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, have rolled out new high-speed data networks that can accommodate heavier traffic loads. In addition, text messaging, now a standard feature on all wireless phones, is likely to work even if voice networks are inundated, because text requires less capacity and is sometimes sent on a different part of the network.

Nextel's "Direct Connect" feature allows you to use the phone like a walkie-talkie by bypassing regular phone switching centers — ideal if cell phones and conventional phone lines are clogged. Encouraged by customer response, the company is now rolling out the feature nationally.

The shifts in technology have forced consumers to face a dizzying array of emergency communications options — many of which they actually don't need. Disaster kit packing lists created by the Red Cross don't even mention cell phones. "Whatever works for the family normally is great," says the Red Cross' Dana Allen. "We don't really want people relying too heavily on technology in case systems go down."

Most consumers can employ a few simple strategies to improve their odds. For starters, don't keep hitting the redial button on regular or wireless phones. Dialing in rapid succession can cause network congestion,

exacerbating the overload problem. (This happens weekly during the "American Idol" TV show, when callers are asked to vote by phone.) Instead, wait a full minute between calls.

Learning how to peck out a text message on your cell phone can radically boost your chances of making contact in a crisis. Virtually every phone made since the late '90s is equipped with the feature — but only about 15 percent of users use it regularly. Text messages may be able to bypass an overloaded network, and you can quickly blast the same message to a large group of people.

On most phones, sending a text message simply requires punching a few buttons on the phone's keypad, accessing the main menu, and pressing the text-messaging option — typically for a small fee. Occasionally, companies require customers to sign up for the service separately. Another tactic: Manually override the feature that keeps your phone locked to your carrier's network, which can be achieved on many phones by simply accessing the "system" option in the phone's menu.

In emergencies, both wireless carriers and landline phone companies typically free up lines and give priority to people who are trying to call out of the affected area. That means it's often easier to call out from an emergency location than to call into the disaster area. In some cases, it can be easier to make long-distance calls than local calls. This occurred on 9/11 when Verizon's central office in downtown Manhattan was damaged. That's why the Red Cross urges families to designate a common family contact who is outside their region in the event a disaster damages the local phone systems.

Consumers now armed with new cell phones may not be any better off. Even updated networks could still jam. "Every wireless network is finite," says Greg Santoro, vice president of Internet and wireless services at Nextel. "That's the reality of the entire industry." Cell phone networks already operate at about 80 percent capacity on a regular workday, according to IDC Research, which leaves many carriers with little extra room to accommodate the surge in call volume that typically accompanies a national emergency.

In some circumstances, older technology might actually work better than the latest gizmo. Take Research In Motion's BlackBerrys, which emerged as a must-have digital device after the terrorist attacks. The original RIM BlackBerry models operate on a data-only network called Mobitex that is known for its ability to penetrate buildings and rarely jams.

But as RIM and other gadgetmakers focus on designs that combine cell phones, organizers and e-mail into a single gadget, the newer models operate on the same network as regular cell phones. RIM models with built-in phones, such as the new BlackBerry 6210 and the BlackBerry 6710, send both e-mail and phone calls over wireless phone networks.

"If the cellular networks are overloaded, these things are not going to work," says Alex Slawsby, an analyst with research firm IDC. He points out that e-mails alone may get through the system faster if the system is overloaded.

Counters Mark Guibert, a vice president at RIM, "There's never a guarantee on any network," he says. "But I'm confident that our performance will be good relative to any other services."

Two of RIM's staple BlackBerry models, the 957 and 857, are still manufactured to work on the older network. (Those models are used by members of Congress.) In addition, a small RIM competitor, Good Technology, is manufacturing new gadgets, including a handheld called the G100 that uses the older network because of its reputation for reliability.

Technology firms are racing to offer more options for crisis communications. Upoc, an Internet firm, offers a service that delivers Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security updates straight to your cell phone. Microsoft is set to launch a new line of "smart" wrist-watches that could receive news and possibly terror alerts over FM radio spectrum. Even the U.S. Senate is weighing implementing a new emergency alert system: One proposal would turn your TV on in the middle of the night if an attack occurred.

A few weeks ago, Arthur Heimbold, a retired Washington, D.C., business executive, was alarmed by the smell of burning gas wafting through his Georgetown neighborhood. A neighbor called him in a panic. "We're within a mile of the White House," said Mr. Heimbold. "People here are jittery."

But within minutes, the neighborhood's new community alert system sent residents a text-message bulletin: "DC Fire reports two manhole fires on M Street," it read.