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Most people own a mobile phone*, so it is a good first option for communicating an emergency. Mobile phones have saved lives and reduced the need for costly search and rescue responses.
A mobile phone is an adequate device on its own where there is known to be good mobile phone coverage; more likely close to populated areas.
However, mobile phones have a critical limitation: they don’t work everywhere.
A mobile phone needs to connect with a mobile network. There is no mobile phone coverage across most of Australia. A trip down a river or a gorge is unlikely to have mobile phone coverage. There are also black spots with no coverage in populated areas.
* mobile phones are also referred to as smart phones.
To make a mobile phone call, the phone has to be within approximately 40km of a mobile phone tower on its particular network, with a clear “line of sight” to the tower.
At extreme range, a text (SMS) message may get through when a voice call will not.
Triple zero (000) calls can be made via any network within range.
Advantages of a mobile phone
- Most people own one and know how to use it.
- Effective two-way communication so any type of assistance can be sought: 000 for a snake bite; roadside service for broken down vehicle, or to the trip contact to inform of a late return due to bad weather.
- A 000 call can be made for a lower level of emergency than for a PLB activation because the nature of the emergency can be explained to emergency services.
- A 000 call will get through on any network within range of the phone. The 000 call is not limited to the phone’s network provider. This is a valuable feature of Australian mobile phone networks. The screen PIN is bypassed too, for 000 calls. However, if the 000 call connects through another network, Emergency Services CANNOT call the phone back through that network.
- A GPS is built in.
- Geo-referenced maps can be downloaded for offline use.
- Weather forecasts can be received
- Emergency Warnings (fire, flood, wind, storm) for a specified area (Watch Zone) are sent as alerts via the state’s Emergency App (most states). The phone should be left turned on and this option activated if conditions are threatening.
Disadvantages of a mobile phone
- Limited or no reception in more remote areas and black spots.
- Battery life is limited, and more so than usual in many bushwalking or ski touring areas because the battery flattens more quickly when the phone works harder to maintain connection with the network. This unexpected drain on the battery is a “rookie error”.
- The battery is further drained when the phone:
- is used to make and receive calls
- GPS and camera functions are used
- has data enabled
- is in cold conditions
- Most mobile phones are easily damaged as they are not designed for harsh outdoor situations, compared with the robust construction of a handheld GPS, PLB, tracker or satellite phone.
- The touch screen on a mobile phone can be difficult (or impossible) to use when wet, with gloves, or if the user is impaired due to shivering, injury or illness.
Using a mobile phone effectively
Choosing a phone and network:
- Cheaper and older mobiles may have inferior range due to their specifications.
- Telstra generally has the best coverage in regional areas.
- Telstra mobile phones with a “blue tick” work better in regional areas.
- Read the fine print: some low cost mobile providers claim to “roam on the Telstra network”, but only roam on PART of the Telstra network with no overage in regional areas.
Prior to the trip
- Check mobile phone coverage for the area. Each of the networks provide coverage maps which are a reasonably good indication of coverage.
- Install the Australian Emergency Services Triple Zero (000) app: Emergency+.
- Install the Emergency app for each State to be visited to access fire and weather warnings: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria; Western Australia, Northern Territory, ACT
- Become familiar with the app and the warnings provided
- Set a Watch Zone covering the area of the trip. A watch zone is an area for which any emergency warnings and information updates will be received as an alert.
- On the trip, the phone will need to be left on if conditions are threatening to receive emergency warnings in real time. But this will drain the phone battery.
- Fully charge all phones and power bank battery!
Note: Phone tracking apps are of limited value when bushwalking. The mobile phone needs to be left turned on which flattens the battery rapidly.
On the trip
- Carry a charged power bank battery with the necessary cable as backup.
- Keep at least one mobile in the group turned off to preserve its battery for emergency use only. A Telstra “blue tick” phone is best for this purpose.
- Ensure all group members know who is carrying the emergency phone and any screen PIN or password.
- Conserve mobile phone batteries:
- Turn off when not in use.
- Turn off mobile data
- Turn off any apps not required (before and during the trip).
- Put the phone in flight mode when using the camera, GPS or accessing track notes and maps.
- Use power saving mode (via power settings).
- Use text (SMS) rather than voice calls.
- Carry in a secure waterproof pouch.
- Keep the phone warm to maximise battery efficiency.
Dial 000: using a mobile phone in an emergency
Australian Government Advice:
Emergency+ app screens. Location is shown from the phone’s GPS. If the GPS function is off, the app prompts the user to turn it on.
- If necessary go to higher ground to get reception.
- If already installed, use the Emergency+ app to initiate the call. The app will display the location, which must be given to the 000 operator.
- A 000 call will get through on any network within range of the phone. The 000 call is not limited to the phone’s network provider. This is an a valuable feature of Australian mobile phone networks. The screen PIN is bypassed too, for 000 calls. However, if the 000 call is made on another network, Emergency Services CANNOT call the phone back through that network.
- Give the 000 operator the Trip Emergency Contact details, so the trip and personnel details can be obtained by emergency services from the Trip Contact, saving time and preserving the mobile phone battery.
- A text (SMS) message can sometimes get through when a voice call will not. At the time of writing in 2019, 000 cannot be contacted via text (SMS) message. The Trip Emergency Contact could be sent a text message so they can contact 000 where 000 cannot be contacted directly.
- A data connection may be available if a 000, voice or SMS have failed. Apps such as WhatsApp, Messenger or Skype are worth trying.
Preserving the phone battery is essential. Assistance may take some time to arrive:
- When 000 has been contacted arrange for any return phone calls or texts from Emergency Services at designated times
- Turn the mobile off when not in use
- Turn on power saving mode
- Do not make unnecessary calls
If a group’s location is unknown
- If a 000 call is received but the user does not know their location, in some States Police can send an SMS with a link that, once accepted by the user, will send the location to Police. This only works if the phone has a signal on its own network. Using the Emergency+ app avoids this problem.
- If a group is reported overdue the Police will attempt to contact each of the mobile phones in the group.
Note: this section intentionally avoids excessive technical detail.