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In A Crisis, Will Your Phone Work?

The Atlantic hurricane season - June 1st through Nov. 30th - is just six weeks away and for those who survived Katrina, and those with loved ones who did not, the approach to the dangerous side of the calendar is as ominous as it is silent.

There are numerous blue ribbon panels and government officials at all levels trying to figure out how best to get ready - and how to do a better job if the worst happens again - whether it be a natural disaster or a manmade one, like the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some of the solutions may require huge expenditures and big changes; but the infrastructure is already in place for one change that could make a big difference in times of emergency.

That's according to two telecommunications industry pioneers - Jeff Pulver and Tom Evslin - who have filed a petition asking the FCC to require phone companies to provide voicemail or call forwarding to customers whose phones are inoperable or inaccessible because of a disaster, terrorist attack or evacuation order.

The option to leave a message for anyone calling a non-working phone - for example, "I did survive the flood, am in Houston and will call you back, please leave a message" - or forward calls to another phone number - for example, a friend's house where an evacuee is temporarily staying - would kick in when a phone is unusable for 12 hours.

The idea, Evslin explains, is to give people - especially those who are low income and may not have cell phones or computers - a way to let loved ones and others know how they are - and just as important, where they are.

"Shame on us if we don't learn from Katrina," said Evslin, speaking at a conference on telecommunications issues earlier this month in Silver Spring, Md., arguing that the FCC should act quickly, even before the more wide-ranging decisions which are to be made to ramp up overall preparedness in the U.S.

Names, said Evslin, can be hard to trace - there are many people with the same name - but the ten digits which make up a phone number are highly specific to the particular person being called.

In the immediate chaos that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the fates and whereabouts of countless flood victims became all but unknowable, with phones underwater or otherwise inaccessible as evacuees scattered to all parts of the U.S.

Worried relatives called phones that had out-of-order recordings or were simply never answered.

Rescue workers searched homes for people who had already evacuated, unnecessarily risking life and limb, wasting resources already stretched thin by the disaster.

Web sites and message boards sprang up to try to reunite the separated, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began registering flood victims, and non-profits of all types did their part to track the missing.

But it took a very long time.

Katrina came ashore on the Gulf Coast on August 29th; Hurricane Rita made landfall on Sept. 24th. But despite round-the-clock efforts by authorities, non-profit agencies and volunteers, it wasn't until March 16th that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was able to arrange a family reunion for the last of 5,192 cases of children who became separated from their families and were reported missing after the storms.

All but 12 were found alive and most, according to NCMEC, turned out to be living with relatives, family friends or other adults.

Kids weren't the only ones unable to reconnect when the winds died down.

NCMEC's Katrina/Rita hotline also logged 12,342 reports of missing adults, forwarded to the National Center for Missing Adults for investigation.

Johnnie Marchand, a hospital worker who fled Algiers, La., wound up in Waco, Texas, with not a clue as to whether her 76-year-old father, who lived in New Orleans, had gotten out alive.

"I couldn't get through to him... there was nothing I could do," she says, remembering three weeks of calling everyone she could think of and staring at the TV, hoping to see his face. "I'm hoping and praying... looking at the Convention Center, trying to see if I see my dad's face in that crowd."

"He wasn't in that Superdome. He wasn't being carted from dome to dome," says Marchand, who finally got the good news that he was doing volunteer work with a church group he'd met while evacuated to Arkansas.

She's now a job trainer at Mission Waco, a non-profit community outreach organization that helped out in the search for her father.

Voicemail or call forwarding would have been a big help, says Marchand. "It would have been such a relief, and so much stress off me."

Stress could be reduced for many evacuees, says attorney Jonathan Askin - who drafted the FCC petition for Pulver and Evslin, who are both involved in VoIp phone service over the Internet.

The petition, available online, is now in the public comment period - meaning that consumers have until April 27th to log on to the FCC web site, type in the petition's "proceeding identification number" - RM-11327 - and send a message on why the proposal is a good or bad idea.

Askin notes that the FCC worked quickly after Katrina, within days, to temporarily suspend its rules against switching phone numbers from one geographic area to another - allowing customers to take their phone numbers with them to their new locations.

The petition, says Askin, seeks to go beyond impromptu solutions in the heat of a crisis and instead set up, in advance, procedures for emergency communications that everyone will both know about and be able to rely on.

Technology, he argues, makes this a low cost solution to a serious problem.

The added cost of emergency voicemail and call forwarding, says Askin, would be "almost negligible. These services are minor software changes."

BellSouth is already on the hook for the cost of rebuilding after Katrina, a bill it expects to come in at between $700 million and $900 million.

BellSouth lawyers are studying the emergency voicemail and call forwarding proposal and expect to provide a formal response to the FCC, but company spokesman Bill McCloskey says new government-imposed rules may not be the answer.

"Many of the things that are proposed are things that we already do and that customers find useful," says Bill McCloskey. "In any disaster, since no two are exactly alike, it is essential that flexibility be available to respond to circumstances as they exist on the ground."

BellSouth also has proposals for how to do things better next time around. They include tax credits for companies rebuilding after Katrina, procedures to make fuel available for powering phone networks, improved security for phone company employees and facilities, designation of a single radio frequency to allow emergency personnel to communicate with each other, and the inclusion of telecommunications service providers in planning and responding to disasters.