Staying connected and informed during and after a storm

Smartphone (Photo: WEAR-TV)

Today, many of us depend on our devices for vital information.

The last time a major hurricane hit Northwest Florida, 13 years ago, cell phone service was spotty in the aftermath.

Now, providers are better prepared.

Verizon Wireless showed Channel 3 News their regional switching facility in Pensacola.

It has backups upon backups, including generators, fuel tanks, and banks of batteries, so your phone stays connected.

They also have units called Cell on Wheels or COWs, to add an extra boost where needed.

Mark Mclain, Network Assurance Manager with Verizon, said COWs came in handy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. "We had to deploy several of these units to areas to help FEMA or any other agency that's got a lot of people gathered together."

After Hurricane Maria, AT&T deployed a drone, known as a flying COW, to provide cell coverage in remote areas of Puerto Rico.

All the major providers are investing in their networks to harden them against service interruptions.

When resources are strained, the folks at Verizon say, how you communicate will make a difference.

Mclain said, "During a hurricane or disaster the system can get pretty loaded with traffic and if you use text messaging to alert and talk to your loved ones, or whoever, it goes through a lot faster. It's a lot quicker. It takes less data to move a text message than it does a voice call. And it goes out a lot quicker."

Federal, state and local agencies are using that connectivity to get information out fast to those affected.

It wasn't hard for Channel 3 News to find people using their smartphones to stay in touch or just be entertained.

These people were out on a nice sunny day in Downtown Pensacola, and we don't know what information they were getting, but we know they may be turning to storm information when the weather turns for the worse.

Federal and state agencies and service organizations are using social media and apps to share vital information.

FEMA is on the front lines of any disaster in the U.S. The agency's app delivers safety reminders and emergency resources, including where you can find open shelters. FEMA is also active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Your county's emergency management division provides several ways to get urgent updates.

You can sign up for text alerts or follow them on social media.

Escambia County

Santa Rosa County

Okaloosa County

Messaging services like WhatsApp and Zello can help you find and share information and photos.

WhatsApp uses wifi, when available, to let you call or message friends and family without data fees.

Zello works like a walkie-talkie. After Hurricane Harvey, it's credited with linking rescuers and people who needed help through location- and event-specific channels.

Before the storm, the American Red Cross Monster Guard app can help prepare your children. Fifteen interactive episodes describe different kinds of emergencies, including fire, floods, and severe weather.

It's a Parents' Choice Award-approved app, but as the website's review cautions, episodes may include strong images of disaster that may disturb some young children.

Of course, you can count on your Channel 3 First Warning Weather Team to track every storm that forms in the tropics, giving you the most time possible to prepare your home and family. We'll live stream to your device, and we've partnered with radio stations so you can listen when you can't watch. We'll also post updates to our website, Facebook, and Twitter, so no matter where you are, you can always find the most current information.

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