Cell Phone Emergency Stand Down

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

All of us are familiar with the law that requires that we move our cars out of the way to make room for emergency vehicles when we hear a siren or see their flashing lights.  It’s a minor inconvenience and the least we can do to help someone in trouble.  It’s common courtesy, and common sense.  Keep that in mind when you consider what I’m about to suggest.

Remember how, on September 11th a few years ago, the cellular phone systems in New York City were overwhelmed?  Everyone was calling everyone else.  Some were making sure loved ones and friends were okay.  Others were just calling each other to talk about what was happening.  All this, in addition to the usual business and personal calls.  Unfortunately, there may have been people in trouble because of the attack, and other people who had real, life threatening problems elsewhere in the city, but who couldn’t get through on their cell phones to get the assistance they needed.

The other day, when the highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, the same thing happened.  The cellular networks serving the Minneapolis area were overwhelmed.  And then it occurred to me, why not pass a law that does for cell phone traffic what current law does for highway traffic?  Let’s require, when the authorities announce a state of emergency which specifically includes an order to curtail non-emergency cell phone activity in a given area, that all of us in that area discontinue using our cell phones until further notice.

Yes, some of us will have to postpone talking to each other until later.  Some of us will arrive late to meetings without being able to call ahead.  Business will be affected.  And some of us will be anxious while we wait to hear from family and friends who may be in an affected area.  In fact, the collective effect is such that the very act of calling to check with the people we care about may put some of them in jeopardy.  Like it or not, individuals acting in what each believes to be his or her best interests can, collectively, produce a counter-productive result.  Staying off the phone may give other people who really need help an extra chance of surviving – which is more important, and precisely what we would want for ourselves and our own children if we were in trouble when an open cell phone line could make a life saving difference.

Exceptions would be incoming calls.  Calls to and from emergency personnel, such as might be necessary to call them back to work.  Calls to and from kids, let’s say 12 or younger, who might be waiting for parents to pick them up, or who might be frightened or confused, and not know what to do.  Even with these exceptions, most of us would be off the system, traffic would be manageable, and real emergencies more easily identified and resolved.

Enforcement would be, for the most part, self-imposed, as it is when cars move of the way of emergency vehicles.  Most of us are responsible and caring.  And who hasn’t imagined him or herself trapped in the World Trade Centers, or in one of the cars on the bridge in Minneapolis?  More than anything, it’s this empathy that will make it work, and the good feeling that all of us will share in having done our small part to help in a crisis.

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