Cell Providers Pushed to Improve Crisis Performance

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    Cellular phones are pushed as a premiere crisis management tool, but will yours have service when you need it most?

    These days, a good portion of the population has no land line at all, and runs their calls (and much of their internet use) entirely through cellular. Problem is, when disasters strike, cell service isn’t nearly as reliable as most would expect. According to an NPR story by Tracy Samuelson, roughly one in four cellphone towers in the path of Hurricane Sandy went out of service, and in Long Beach, N.Y. every single one went down during the course of the storm.

    With the debate over who should be in charge of cell carrier regulation still in full swing, it may actually be the court of public opinion that casts the deciding vote. Quotes like this one, from Long Beach, N.Y. City Manager Jack Shnirman in that same NPR article, are the type of catalyst that could push carriers into cleaning up their act:

    “There was one woman in particular who passed away, of natural causes, an elderly woman,” he said. “And her daughter had to walk literally a mile and a half from her home to police headquarters just to say, ‘Listen, my mom has passed, and I thought I should tell somebody.’ ”

    To prepare for the next disaster, Schnirman wants better access to “Cell on Wheels,” or COWs. They’re cell towers that can be moved from place to place. He wants backup power, like generators, at cell towers. And he wants better access to the cell providers themselves. He said he didn’t even know whom to call during Sandy.

    “The city’s IT department flagged a Verizon tech off the street to help us find out who in Verizon could help; we needed to get somebody to come and help us,” Schnirman says.

    This actually presents an opportunity for smart cell companies to do some proactive crisis management. The first carriers to acknowledge the problems, and present a plan to better serve their customers, will not only head off potential reputation damage caused by lost service, but also grab the positive PR that comes with showing stakeholders that you’re making a change for the better.

    Sandy was also a warning shot to any of us who could be in the path of a disaster, natural or man-made. Have backup systems for critical services – like maintaining one land line even if you mostly rely on cellular service.

    Regardless of what industry you’re in, when cries for change sound out you would do well to pay attention. Change before your hand is forced, and you’re a caring, responsible company. Wait until you have no choice, and that most valuable asset, your reputation, is put at risk.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]