Boston Bombing Shows You Can’t Rely on Cell Phones in an Emergency

Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly.  You can't rely on it working when you most need it.
Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly. You can’t rely on it working when you most need it.

Just hours ago, two bombs were detonated close to the finish line of the Boston marathon.  At least one more has been found, unexploded.  The count of killed and wounded is still progressing.

The situation is now being featured in non-stop wall-to-wall coverage by all the networks, and one of the actual explosions was caught live on video and is being endlessly looped over and over again, with more video footage appearing all the time – an interesting example of how almost nothing these days escapes video recording.

But, from our perspective, the really significant thing about this tragedy is what the authorities immediately did in response.  It seems that at a federal level, a decision was made to shut down cell phone service across a wide part of central Boston.

This was initially reported as ‘people were finding it difficult to get a cell phone signal due to everyone trying to use their phones at once’ but subsequently the reality became apparent – nameless authorities had instructed the wireless companies to block cell phone service from regular people with regular cell phones (security and first responder groups are sometimes equipped with phones that have special service designators that will continue to function when normal phone service is blocked).

Interestingly, while a nameless official in DC said that cell phone service had been shut down, Verizon and Sprint both denied that claim, saying instead that the only call-blocking was due to increased traffic.  Details on this link but note the text has changed a couple of times already, who only knows what it will say when you click on it!

Perhaps it doesn’t even matter as to how it is that cell phone service was disrupted.  The bottom line is that for many people, they were unable to call in or out of the affected area for an extended time period.

There are several reasons why the authorities would block phone service.  The first and most obvious is due to concerns that there may be other bombs out there with cell phone (or pager, if such things still exist) controlled detonators; by turning off the cell phone coverage, they prevent such bombs from being remotely triggered.

The other reason is to prevent an attacking group of terrorists from coordinating their ongoing plan of attack (and making good their escape).  Maybe other bombs are to be detonated by suicide bombers, or a timer to be initiated by a bomber who then endeavors to escape.  If such people don’t get their activation instructions by text message or cell phone call, they hopefully won’t set their bombs off by themselves.

Both these types of considerations are perfectly valid and make good sense.  We understand and agree with the blocking of cell phone service in such cases.

But.  Imagine if you were in the affected area; or, alternatively, if a loved one was in the affected area.  You’d want to urgently establish contact either to advise of your situation (if you were in the area) or to check (if calling to someone in the area) and finding cell phone service unavailable would be a major disruption.  These days, with few or no pay phones, we have become increasingly reliant on our cell phones, and seldom pause to question our assumption that they are ideal emergency communication tools for us.

The reality is that cell phone service is vulnerable to a number of potential problems that could interrupt their ability to provide reliable service in an emergency.  Clearly the Boston Bombing shows one such vulnerability – a decision by the authorities to block all calls in or out of a region.  And while on this occasion it was due to an apparent terrorist bombing, the increasing use of the internet by violent protesters to coordinate their protesting means that in other civil disorder events, there is an increasing temptation by the authorities to switch off cell phone service so as to disrupt the actions of the group the authorities are trying to put down.

Other types of emergencies may cause other vulnerabilities to be exposed as well.  A regional power outage will see cell phone towers dying as their emergency batteries, of varying capacity and run-time capability, run out of charge.  An earthquake might physically disrupt service by toppling towers and breaking cables.  An EMP attack would simply destroy the electronics in the towers (and possibly in your cell phone too).

An Emergency Communications Alternative

Fortunately, there is an alternative means of communication that is much more resilient and less likely to suffer outages from any of the preceding vulnerabilities.  Good old-fashioned wireless radio – portable and car/mobile mounted walk-talkies.

In an event such as the Boston Bombing, normal radio service would be expected to continue unabated.  While walkie-talkies have very little range in a downtown situation, their range can be massively extended by any nearby repeaters, and most towns and cities of medium or larger size (and many smaller population centers too) have one or many repeaters that you could use to bounce your signal on from where you are to where you wish it to be received.

To help you understand the prevalence of repeaters, have a look at this website (and others like it, some provide better coverage for some areas than others) and click-through to your state and county to see how many repeaters are in your area.  Or do some searching to find the local repeater frequency coordinator for your area – we went and checked the service for Boston and found 26 repeaters within ten miles of Boston, twelve of which were within five miles (on either the 2m, 1.25m or 70cm bands).

We suggest you Get a Technician class Ham License (click the link to see how easy this can be) and then always carry a small walkie-talkie radio with you.  A Baofeng UV-5R would be an excellent choice, costing less than $50.

We recommend disassembling it into three parts – the antenna, the battery and the radio itself.  We’d pack the radio in a lightly vacuum sealed nylon barrier bag – just enough vacuum to cause the bag to drape moderately around the radio, but not too much as to risk puncturing the bag on sharp edges of the radio, or to potentially harm internal radio components such as electrolytic capacitors.

Next, we’d wrap several layers of aluminum foil around the packed radio (to act as a Faraday cage in the event of an EMP attack) and then place that in a protective outer plastic bag (so as not to break the aluminum foil).

Oh – we’d also have in the radio’s pack a sheet of paper showing all the relevant frequencies for repeaters and the channel numbers we’d programmed them in to the radio, plus our group’s cascading series of contact frequencies, so that when you open up the radio pack, you not only have the radio itself, but all you need to know about the frequencies to use.  We’d probably include a copy of the radio’s instruction manual too for good measure.

You keep the battery separate so as to conveniently recharge it every few months as it self-discharges.  You keep the antenna separate for two reasons – to make the unit more compact to carry, and to stop the antenna increasing the radio’s vulnerability to EMP attack (yes, even with the radio off and battery removed, and even inside a Faraday cage, some vulnerability remains).

If you needed to use the radio, it would only take a minute to remove the radio from its protective package, screw in the antenna, and click the battery in to place, and then you’d have a working radio, suitable to use contacting other members of your extended family and retreat group (who also should have radios too of course).

In a more serious event where the repeaters might be compromised and also cease functioning, it should be part of your plan to exit the city area as best you can, and to monitor/call other group members at designated times – maybe for five minutes, once every 30 minutes, commencing at 10 and 40 minutes past each hour – until such time as you make contact with each other, either by radio or by meeting up at an agreed assembly point.


A resilient communications strategy that will ensure the members of your group can reliably keep in contact with each other and coordinate their actions and movements is an essential part of surviving both the immediate effects of an unexpected event and the ongoing problems that may ensue.

For information on how to plan your communications prepping, please read through our ongoing series on Communications in general, and in particular those articles that relate to wireless/walkie-talkie communications.

While cell phones are generally better than two-way radios for most ordinary communication requirements, they are also much more reliant on everything outside of our control continuing to work as it normally does, and as preppers, that’s an assumption we can’t comfortably accept.

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