What to do when 911 calls can’t get through

Anchorage Police Department vehicles (Alaska Public Media images)

Last weekend, many emergency calls to 911 in Anchorage were not working. Police and fire officials in the city tried to alert the public, encouraging cellphone users to dial an alternate number or use a landline.

The problem stemmed from a damaged fiber optic line in the Lower 48, according to a spokeswoman for Alaska Communications, the company affected.

The outage left some wondering what they should do if they can’t get through to emergency responders with a cellphone, since for many people it’s the only phone they have. Across Alaska, just 42 percent of households still have a landline, according to Christine O’Connor, Executive Director of the Alaska Telecom Association.

“One reason is they tend to be more resilient,” O’Connor said. “Depending on what kind of natural disaster you might have, you’re going to find that a landline still has power, even if the power is out, and a lot of people like that feature.”

911 systems across the country struggle with calls from cellphones. One reason is that smartphones and apps change more rapidly than the analog phone systems upon which most 911 systems are built.

Journalists and the Federal Communications Commission have documented hundreds of instances where emergency call systems have failed for mobile phone users.

O’Connor has some advice. Just like planning for an emergency in which food, water or fuel become scarce, Alaskans should figure out a plan for communication devices, she said.

“Just be aware of what kind of service you have, and whether it works when the power is out,” she said. “Just understanding how your phone service is going to work in an emergency is probably the best thing.”

People can also reach emergency responders through their 10-digit, non-emergency phone number. That’s something you may want to write down and store in the contacts of your phone, in case the 911 system isn’t working but you need to contact police or fire officials. In Anchorage, the number is 907-786-8900.