Talking Your Family through a Tough Time

Shared plans can help everyone stay in touch

Anyone watching the savage attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unfold was undoubtedly struck by the central role that cell phones played in the disaster. Once seen by many as a status symbol, and often as a nuisance, cell phones suddenly became a necessity. Wireless phones were the link to worried family and co-workers, beacons for search-and-rescue teams, and--tragically--the means to say a final good-bye.

Chances are that you already have a cell phone. Now you may want to consider equipping the rest of the family. It's also a good time to think through how to best use them in emergencies. For while the phones didn't work perfectly--many transmitters in New York City disappeared in the rubble, and wireless networks in many cities were rapidly saturated with calls--it's clear that they can be real lifesavers in less calamitous emergencies.

TAILORED. The best option is to sign up for or switch to a shared plan, usually called a family plan (table). Additional numbers can be added for $10 to $20 a month, less than the cheapest individual accounts, and everyone shares the same pool of monthly minutes, which get less costly the more you buy. Plan members don't have to live in the same household; you can equip your babysitter or aging parents who live nearby, and most carriers allow free local calls between plan members. Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless offer particularly broad choices that let you tailor a plan to fit your family's needs.

If you only want one or two new phones and a family plan isn't practical--your wireless service, say, is provided by your employer--standalone plans from such carriers as Sprint PCS or AT&T Wireless go for as little as $20 a month. With just 20 and 60 anytime minutes a month, respectively, they're clearly designed for emergency use only. Or, if you suspect that your teenager might have trouble curtailing social chats that eat up precious minutes, a prepaid service may be the way to go. Most carriers sell starter kits--with the first $25 or $50 worth of calls and the phone included--for $100 or so.

As Sept. 11 made clear, it's better to carry your phone with you rather than sticking it in a drawer or glove compartment, the favorite hiding place of so-called emergency phones. Other tips:

-- Devise a family communications plan. Since local phone lines are often down or congested during natural disasters, designate family members in other parts of the country as contacts to track the status and location of those affected. Program their numbers into everyone's phones.

-- Buy a car charger for your phones. They cost about $30 and will come in handy if there's an extended power outage.

-- Don't repeatedly hit the "redial" or "send" button if your call doesn't go through. Wait 10 seconds to let your wireless provider clear the earlier attempt from its system.

In the next several months, carriers will roll out technology that will make cell phones even more helpful in disasters. Soon, carriers will be able to pinpoint their phones to within 100 yards--making it easier to locate the origin of 911 calls. But because the phones signal the network regularly if they're turned on, you can be found even if you're not able to dial 911. That would go a long way toward finding a motorist stranded by a flood or snowstorm.

Such emergencies may never happen to you. But if they should, you're better off if you're toting some gadget that will keep you in touch with your loved ones--and your potential rescuers.

By Larry Armstrong

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.