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Facts about Updating Your Voicemail in Emergency Situations

Recently, a viral “Public Service Announcement” has been going around and it is DRIVING ME NUTS. There are a couple of different versions of but here is the first version I saw.

PSA – If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc and you notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life.

Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc…. The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help.

I’m not 100% sure who created this PSA but I kind of want to slap them upside the head. I suspect the creator had good intentions but this is BAD ADVICE by someone who doesn’t quite understand how the cell system and cell photo battery usage rates. If I’m being frank, I think this PSA could get someone killed.

I’m going to break down why I think this is bad advice and why you should do instead. (PS I’m a little pissed off by this and how many people want to “defend” this terrible advice so there may be some swearing, blunt language, and/or sarcasm)

If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc

No matter what the situation is when you encounter a problem. Evaluate your situation. Where are you? Are you seriously hurt? What kind of help do you need?

Now CALL FOR HELP.

This might be roadside assistance for a tow or 911 for medical help. Calling and asking for help should be your first action.

You notice your cell phone is low on juice

Well, then you should make that call quickly and minimize erroneous conversation. Start with the critical information – name, location, need, status (unhurt, hurt, unsafe location). If you are with your car, the make, model, and color.

Assuming your phone hasn’t died, then share your phone is low on battery.
If your battery is so low, that you don’t think you have time for a call, send your emergency contact a text message and ask them to alert emergency services. Text messages require less power to transmit.

No signal

In this case, you are not likely going to be calling anyone but it is worth trying to call 911. You may be in the range of a different cell phone provider’s service range. If that is the case, then the 911 call will still connect. Even if there isn’t enough signal strength for the call to connect, it will still ping the tower.

This will not work in remote areas where there are no cell towers such as some National Parks. Even so, it is worth a try.

Trying to update your voicemail, when you have no signal is just dumb. If you can’t make a phone call, the changes to your voicemail message are not going to go thru.

Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc)

If your phone is low on battery, WHY THE HELL ARE YOU WASTING THAT BATTERY CHANGING YOUR VOICEMAIL MESSAGE.

I timed it, it took me 33 seconds to change my voicemail message to say my name, location, and that my car has broken down. It took me 11 seconds to type out that exact same message as a text to my mother.

Most of us are faster at text messages and text messages require less signal strength to send. Send a FREAKING TEXT MESSAGE.

Seriously, if this is your emergency plan – wasting what little bit of battery on your phone in hopes that someone calls looking for you and waiting on them to hear your voicemail message. Then you deserve a Dawarn Award.

and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc….

If you are in trouble and need, STAY PUT. This is the #1 rule. STAY WHERE YOU ARE. It is incredibly difficult for search-and-rescue operations to locate a moving target.

If you are with your vehicle, great now you have a shelter to protect you from some elements, and it is a nice big reflective thing that is easy to spot especially after dark.

Now if for some blind panicked reason you decided to update your voicemail message rather than CALLING or TEXTING FOR HELP, STAY FUCKING PUT. Hours later when your husband, mother, or roommate notices you are overdue and tries calling you and assuming they get to your voicemail message. They will be sending help to the location you told them so make sure your ass is there. You will get help much faster if you are where they expect you rather than SAR having to assemble a search team and start looking at your dumbass.

The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help.

I hate to break it to you Vanessa from the Dealer Service Center isn’t going to send you help. Seriously, no one in my life who will notice I’m missing bothers to leave me voicemail messages. If they need to leave me a message, they hang up at the start of my voicemail message and send me a text with their message

There is only a small group of people who are going to be seriously concerned if I don’t follow-up with them within 24 hours and most of them will just assume I’m on the trail. If it is an emergency, they will call my mom. She is my emergency contact.

If I’m traveling or out in the wilderness, she will have my planned itinerary and know when she expects me to check back in. If I miss a check-in, she knows to call me, and if I don’t respond within an hour to call emergency services and give them my itinerary.

Sometimes, I will switch up my itinerary when I’m already out of cell range. If that happens, I keep a notebook in my glove box where I will write the updated plan. My mom knows to tell SAR to find my car and look in that notebook for the latest plan.

Changing my voicemail message would 100% be the ABSOLUTE LAST THING I DID if I do in an emergency situation.

I can’t imagine any situation where updating your voicemail should take precedence over calling for help. So I will say it again, YOUR FIRST CALL SHOULD BE FOR HELP. Every single time, you are better off using your limited cell phone battery to call for help.

What about updating your voicemail message before heading out?

**Insert eye roll here** That’s great, what the heck are you going to stay. “It’s Jennifer, it is October 22, 2021, at 10:21 am. I’m headed out to hike Grotto Falls. I’ll be back tonight.” My gynecologist doesn’t care. My gutter cleaner doesn’t care. My best friend isn’t going to listen to the message. She will probably figure, I went hiking and I’ll call her tomorrow (she will notice sometime tomorrow that I haven’t responded to her text. It will probably be 2-3 more days of no response before she calls my mother to see what’s up with me).

Plus saying I’m on Rainbow Falls Trail doesn’t give SAR much to narrow down my location. I could be anywhere along this 5.4-mile trail or my car could be in a ditch or lake along the 45 mile drive between my house and the trailhead.

Now on the other side of safety, sharing your location and how long you will be gone on a voicemail message means that anyone and everyone could find out you are out of your house and when to expect your back. An enterprising thief now knows you are out of the house and how long they have to steal all your valuables.

What should you do instead?

THE ABSOLUTE FIRST THING TO DO IS CALL FOR HELP. Again for the people in the back CALL FOR HELP. TEXT FOR HELP. Make an effort to contact someone. Don’t waste battery changing your voicemail message.

If you are looking for things to do before you head out, tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back. Write it down for them and included the emergency numbers to call if you don’t make the check-in.

  • Send them a text message.
  • Leave it on a post-it note on the fridge
  • Leave them a voicemail
  • Send an email.

Doesn’t matter which you do, just do at least one of these. Preferably two. I verbally tell my mother and send her a text message so she has it in writing. Doing this gives them the where and when so they have a definitive time as to when you are missing and where SAR should start looking for you.

Add a little more redundancy to your system, and get a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Now you have a device that can alert emergency services when cell phone services are limited.

For the love of all things holy, STOP SHAING this stupid “PSA.” It is nonsense and could make a bad situation even worse. No one’s emergancy plan should be “I’ll just change my voicemail if I get into trouble.”

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