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Helpful Tip or Not : Emergency Voicemail

Posted on 10/26/2021
This is a popular Facebook post that went viral this last week:
"If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc and you notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life. Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc.... The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help."

So let's talk about the viral post advising folks to change their voicemail when lost and low on cell phone battery power. Posts like this get your attention, get liked by people who don't know better, are shared by folks trying to be helpful, and the algorithm spreads it like wildfire. These are REAL helpful tips that responders responded with:
1. Without a signal (connection to the cell system) YOU CAN'T CHANGE YOUR VOICEMAIL. The voicemail system resides with your cell provider. To change your outgoing message, you have to CALL into your voicemail and then navigate the menus, record a new greeting, confirm the new greeting, etc. YOU CANNOT DO THIS WITH NO SIGNAL.
2. If your battery is low do not waste its power by calling your voice mail-or a friend or relative. Call 9-1-1 for help.
3. If you have no signal, text for help to 9-1-1. Many, if not most, 9-1-1 centers can receive a text message. An added bonus is that your GPS location will be appended to the text to 9-1-1.
4. Text takes much less power, is far more likely to get through, will automatically retry many times if you have spotty service, leaves record others can see and can give you an indication that it got thru. BTW, because of the automatic retries, you can compose and hit send on a text and then get your phone as high as possible to improve the chances of getting the message out.
5. Stay put. Okay, if you're lost or broken down and you've called for help (assuming you have signal and battery) please stay in one location-UNLESS YOU MUST MOVE FOR SAFETY REASONS. Changing your location makes our job more difficult. Trying to reach someone whose GPS location we have (within a circle, of course) is faster for us than trying to nail down a moving target. STAY PUT.
6. Maximize battery life. In order to make the battery last longer, turn off everything you do not need. Close all apps. Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth. Don't use your cell phone as a GPS/map device and especially do not use the compass if your phone has one -- the compass feature in some phones is a serious battery drain. Pull out your map and compass and/or use a dedicated GPS unit. You may be instructed, by text, to turn your phone off and text back at a specific time. Also, keep your phone just a little warm with some body heat or a handwarmer.

In summary, When venturing to the backcountry, rescuers recommend the following safety tips:
Use text messages
Turn off other apps
Keep your cell phone warm to conserve battery life
Bring a satellite communication device that allows two-way messaging
Notify someone of your plans before heading out into the backcountry
The most important thing is to let someone know where you're going and when you're going to be back or plan to be back.

Stay safe out there folks! And remember, always double check these "super helpful tips" to make sure that they could really be helpful in a time of crisis!

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