Ten Things You Should Never Leave Home Without: #5: Smartphone

My Smartphone - Blackberry Curve

My Smartphone - Blackberry Curve

What is it: According to Wikipedia – a smartphone is “a mobile phone offering advanced capabilities beyond a typical mobile phone, often with PC-like functionality. There is no industry standard definition of a smartphone. For some, a smartphone is a phone that runs complete operating system software providing a standardized interface and platform for application developers. For others, a smartphone is simply a phone with advanced features like e-mail and Internet capabilities, and/or a full keyboard. In other words, it is a miniature computer that has phone capability.”

For the purposes of  Living Prepared, a smartphone must have at least four if not five features: 1) it must function as any mobile/cellular phone would, providing local, long-distance and international voice communications between its user and another phone number; 2) it should have the ability to send and receive (a) SMS text messages and (b) internet e-mail; 3) it should have the ability to access and browse websites on the internet; 4) it should have a built-in digital camera; and 5) it should ideally have GPS capabilities.  I’ll go through the criticality of each of these features below.

Smartphone in Belt-Clip Case

Smartphone in Belt-Clip Case

Keep your smartphone in a good case.  I use a Blackberry leather belt pouch, which works well for me.  You want to protect your phone from damage to its screen, being dropped, etc., so even if you keep it in your coat pocket, or purse, use at least a thin sheath to protect it.

Utility on a Daily Basis: Most of us who have them are already addicted to our smartphones.  Apple’s iPhone is the latest to send us in a new direction with touch screen functionality, which is now being copied by Blackberry and others.  As such an addict, I can’t imagine being without my e-mail when I go out.  As a consultant who works mostly from home, it allows me to be anywhere and everywhere all at the same time.

Being able to call, text and e-mail from just about anywhere is being common, and though there is admittedly a cost involved with such service, it is becoming more affordable for the masses.  Many people are foregoing their home land-lines in favor of their mobile phones as their primary means of communications.

A landline is a convenience, certainly, and always a good means of fixed communications because they often will work through an extended power outage where the wireless networks will fail as our batteries (and the UPS systems on their repeaters) run out of juice.

But in 2009, people expect you to be reachable.  And that means carrying a smartphone.

About a month ago, I was watching the movie “Run Lola Run”, a great 1998 German film about a woman who has to come up with 100,000 DM in 20 minutes to save her boyfriend Manni’s life.  She keeps failing, and she or he keeps dying, and time loops around again and she gets another chance to try again, until, on her third try, she succeeds in saving his life (and keeping the cash).

At one repeated point in this film, Manni is desperate to make a phone call, and borrows a phone card from a blind woman.  At other repeated points in the film, Lola is desperate to contact Manni but has no means of doing so other than to get to the place where he is within the 20 minutes (necessitating a lot of running).  All I could think of while watching this was “where are their cellphones?”

You could not make this film set today.  No 20-something couple in 2009 is ever out of voice and texting range of each other for more than 5 minutes.  But I digress… a little.

Personal Report – Is Mark Living Prepared? I think so.  I carry a Blackberry Curve with service provided by T-Mobile.  It does not have GPS capabilities (I’ll discuss more on this below), but I am considering upgrading.  I do have a GPS for my vehicle which can serve as a hand-held GPS if I should need one.  The GPS I have for my car – the Garmin NUVI 780 – is small enough to be carried and used as a hand-held device, if I need to use it that way.  It can also be programmed for off-road/walking/pedestrian routing.  It is a part of my vehicular emergency preparedness kit, so I always have access to it should I need it.  But I don’t carry it with me when I leave home.  It would be better to have a GPS capable smartphone.

I first started using Blackberries almost as soon as they were introduced publicly in 2001.  As part of the first Strong Angel exercise which I was involved with in 2000, the earliest RIM 2-way pagers were evaluated for their utility to send and receive text messages in an austere environment.  They performed well at Strong Angel.

The RIM Blackberry’s pin-to-pin communication capability, which does not rely on the local voice carrier network being up and running, proved invaluable to first responders at Ground Zero in New York City following 9/11, when it was the only communication network reliably running in lower Manhattan in the days immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center.

Criticality after a disaster:

So let’s go through the five requirements for your smartphone and see where they come in after a disaster:

1)  Voice communications:  Ideally, the voice networks are still working, or will eventually be restored, so being able to send and receive voice calls is going to be critical to organizing yourself and your family and keeping everyone safe and informed as to what is going on.

2a)  Text:  Voice networks will often be jammed following a disaster (despite what the carriers say and promise).  Experience shows that while voice circuits can be overloaded in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, text messages may often be able to still be sent.  SMS messages are carried on a different frequency and consume much less bandwidth than voice or internet communications.  These often get through when other means of communication fail.

I have experienced this myself many times.  When I was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, I was regularly able to send text messages to the phones of other members of the Crisis Response Team or the UN agency staff we were working with, though placing a successful voice call was rare for several weeks.  We were able to communicate and coordinate our activities in this way.  We also used texting in Gujarat, India following the earthquake there in 2001.  So the next time all the lights go out and you want to call someone to see if they are okay – try texting instead.

2b)  e-mail:  Having e-mail available to you at all times can be very important.  People can send you directions or photos and you can send messages much longer and more detailed than you can in a text message.  You can also reach and be reached by anyone with an e-mail address.

3)  Internet:  Access to the internet is increasing useful in post-disaster environments, for access to publicly posted news reports, maps, weather forecasts, even blogs!  Having an internet enabled smartphone is going to give you access to this information, where available, and is going to be very valuable.

4)  Digital camera:  Having a digital camera as a part of your smartphone gives you one less thing to never leave home without – because otherwise, I’d want you to take a digital camera with you wherever you go, and that is not so practical.  With a digital camera, you can take and send pictures of yourself and where you are.  You can be of service by taking pictures of disaster damage that might be of use to emergency responders or news organizations.  (The photo of me in the snow wearing clear lensed glasses was self-taken with my Blackberry).

5)  GPS Capability:  GPS-enabled smartphones allow you to navigate (i.e. receive step-by-step driving or walking directions) to any place you need to go.  After a disaster, this may be someplace that you are unfamiliar with.  People carrying GPS capable smartphones can also be mutually tracked and located on a map (think of your kids) – which can be invaluable in an emergency to find lost or missing persons.

GPS capabilities are invaluable to emergency managers to better collect information about things (people, damaged infrastructure, shelters, etc.) in a way that they can use (i.e. on a map) to make good decisions.  Being able to geo-locate where a photograph was taken automatically adds a lot of value to those pictures.

I don’t have GPS capabilities on my Blackberry but in writing this entry, I am beginning to think that I should and probably will the next time I have to upgrade.  However, for the general public, I’m not sure that I am prepared to call this a requirement yet to turn in your current smartphone and get a GPS capable smartphone, but it will make you better prepared.  But do get a GPS capable smartphone the next time you need a new one.

I do believe that having a GPS for your vehicle is essential, and should you, as an individual, elect to carry a GPS-enabled smartphone and use it in your car to serve this purpose, all the better, but I like the bigger screens of the vehicular-GPS units.

I have a feeling I’m going to be writing a lot more on GPS in later posts.


The  Living Prepared Scorecard:  Smartphone

  • Easily Carried: YES
  • Not too heavy: YES
  • Practical Purpose on a Daily basis: YES
  • Critical Purpose when Disaster Strikes: YES


So, carry a smartphone with you. If you do, you will be Living Prepared.