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How your phone can save your life in an emergency

There are some simple things you can to do now to help your future self.

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Your phone is a vital, potentially life-saving tool you have with you at all times.

Angela Lang/CNET

It can happen in a split second. One minute, everything's fine and then a wrong turn, an unexpected storm, or a loud noise in the next room could put you in a dangerous situation. Whether you're stranded on the side of the road in a blizzard, trapped in your home due to a hurricane and subsequent flooding or in a situation where you can't dial 911, you have an important, potentially life-saving tool in your pocket: your phone.

It's far too easy to take our phones for granted as tools of entertainment and communication, but everyone from police departments to first responders realize our phones are a vital tool during emergency situations.

Earlier this year, a young man's life was saved after he began having an asthma attack and dialed 911 from his Android phone. Despite not being able to communicate with the operator, his location was sent to the call center and help arrived in time. In 2017, a 4-year-old saved his mom's life just by asking Siri to call for help.

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These extreme examples underscore the role that phones can play in preventing loss of life when situations spin out of control. It's smart to understand how a few settings, apps and other tools could potentially help. As always, preparation and education are the first steps.

We talked to the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) in Colorado for advice and tips about how our phones are oftentimes the most important tool we have in an emergency. It could, quite literally, be your lifeline.

Be prepared

It's impossible to account for every situation or predicament you might find yourself in, but you can take some steps to be prepared for whatever life throws your way. It's a good idea to have a go bag ready at all times, with things like flashlights, food, tools and a first aid kit. Here are some general recommendations that apply to nearly every type of emergency situation.

Have external battery packs handy

At the very least, have a portable battery pack on hand to prolong your phone's battery life. If you're camping and know you're going to be away from a power source for an extended amount of time, it may make sense to take more than one battery pack with you. Depending on the battery pack, you should be able to fully charge your phone three to four times.

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Portable battery packs will prolong your phone's battery life, and that could make all the difference.

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There are plenty of affordable packs for Android and iPhone that fit in a pocket or backpack and weigh less than a pound each. The most important point the PCSO drove home when we talked to them is that keeping your phone charged and powered on is critical.

Emergency services can use nearby cellular towers to triangulate your location, but that's not possible if your phone runs out of juice and turns off. Keep a portable battery pack in your car's glove box or in your backpack (they weigh around three-quarters of a pound) at all times.

Be aware that hot environments may reduce the battery pack's life span, so you'll want to periodically check to make sure they're in good condition and fully charged.

Or if you live in an area that frequently has natural disasters, consider a more robust power station. Portable power stations are roughly the size of a small speaker and can be kept under a cabinet or on a desk in your home.

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Share your location with only those who you completely trust.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Keep the station plugged in and always charged. If the power goes out, you'll have a device that can charge your phone, or if need be, power a mini fridge or medical device for a few hours until help arrives, e.g. to keep insulin or other important medications cold.

Anker's PowerHouse line ($300) and Jackery's HLS 290 ($350) both have capacities three to four times that of a smaller portable pack, and will fully recharge your phone up to 12 times or run small appliances up to four hours. Your phone will last longer when you turn off features that drain your battery.

Share your location with trusted friends now

Should you get lost, fall unconscious or go missing, the ability for friends and family members to find you without any interaction on your part is vital. Apple and Google both offer services that allow only those who you completely trust to check in on your whereabouts.

If you use an iPhone, set up the Find My Friends app. The app allows approved friends or family members to monitor your location. If you don't want to grant access to constant location tracking, you can always grant temporary permission, but keep in mind that in some situations you may not have time, or the ability, to send out temporary requests.

If you use Android, Google Maps has a location-sharing feature that will provide your current location, and even include your phone's current battery level with contacts of your choosing. Third party tracking apps, such as Glympse, do the same.

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Storms can take out electrical grids and cell towers in just a few seconds.

Ricky Arnold/NASA

Set up emergency contacts and medical info

All phones come with some sort of emergency contact or medical ID feature built-in, and emergency responders are trained to look at a person's phone to view emergency contact information and any important medical issues they may have -- even if your phone is locked.

On iPhone, set up the Medical ID feature by opening the Health app and selecting the Medical ID tab followed by Edit and turn on Show When Locked. Enter all of your information, as well as who should be contacted, and then tap Done. A Medical ID button will display on your iPhone's lock screen that will allow first responders to access all your information.

On Android, the process will vary depending on the brand of phone you're using, but in general, you should be able to save your emergency details by opening the settings app, viewing user settings, then selecting Emergency Information. Enter your medical info, as well as any emergency contacts.

There will be an "Emergency" button on the bottom of your lock screen that will display your health information and emergency contacts.

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Planning a hike or camping trip in the middle of nowhere? Your phone can still help you find your way.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Tips for specific situations

With a source of backup power, a means for someone to find you, and a way for emergency responders to get you proper help, let's take a closer look at specific situations.

Natural disasters

Tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes can devastate buildings and critical utilities in just a few minutes. The damage can last for days and weeks, taking down electrical grids and cell towers in the process.

Whether it's an unexpected event or one you've had time to prepare for, here are some tips to ensure you get help:

  • Send text messages instead of trying to place phone calls. Between damage to cell towers and power lines, and the strain that will be put on the network as first responders focus on an area, getting a phone call through is going to be hit or miss. Text messages, however, require far fewer network resources and have a better chance of going through.
  • We have a roundup of apps and services for natural disasters, from hurricane monitoring to reuniting you with friends and family members, there's an app to help you with just about any natural disaster.
  • The App Store and Play Store each have a wide range of options for SOS apps that will use your phone's camera flash signal to send an SOS in Morse Code. You can use these apps if search parties are nearby at night and you want to get their attention, like the free Flashlight & More Utility for iPhone and Super-Bright LED Flashlight for Android.
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Your iPhone has an SOS mode.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Stranded in the wilderness?

Getting lost or stranded in the wilderness on a planned hiking trip or due to a storm is a very scary thought.

Indeed, the fact that our phones track and record our every movement has led to privacy concerns, and rightfully so, but depending on the situation you find yourself in, your phone's ability to locate you could very well save your life. More importantly, you can still use your phone's GPS functionality even when it's in airplane mode.

If you're planning a hike, install an app such as GAIA GPS that allows you to download a map of the area you'll be in, and then use your phone's GPS to locate you. I've tested the app on an iPhone XS Max and Pixel 3 XL and at times it took 30 seconds or so to locate me, but ultimately GPS worked just fine while in airplane mode.

Unless you know a lot about plants, odds are you're not going to know what's safe to eat if you're in dire need of nutrition. You have a few options:

  • Download the Wikipedia app and save the poisonous plants Wiki for offline viewing. It's not the best solution, but the list has photos and a brief description of the plant that could cause harm.
  • On Android phones, Google Lens can help identify unknown plants if you're in an area with wireless reception. Keep in mind that many plants look alike, and have potentially poisonous lookalikes -- Lens is not a certified botany tool and should not be relied upon. We especially caution consuming wild mushrooms or berries. However, it can be helpful for general information -- for example, which part of a common plant is digestible -- and internal links lead to more information. Note that Google Lens can drain your battery.
  • Search your phone's respective app store for more specific apps. For example, "Colorado hiking and plants" will return apps that include very specific information about that region.

Remember to conserve your phone's battery as much as possible. Start by disabling all apps and services that won't find you help. Using airplane mode in an area where you have no cellular coverage will prevent your phone from constantly searching for signal and using precious battery reserves.

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Your phone's voice assistant can call for help, even if your phone is on the other side of the room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Break-in or active shooter

The first thing you need to do after you realize someone has broken into your house or there's an active shooter nearby, is to hide and turn off all sounds on your phone. Android users can quickly mute their phone in the quick settings panel, and iPhone users can use the mute switch.

Additionally, go into your phone's settings app and disable all vibration, including keyboard and touch vibration -- vibration can be audible, especially if the phone hits a surface. Once that's done, rely on text messaging to alert someone on the outside what's going on. Ready.gov has more suggestions to help you prepare for an active shooter situation.

Depending on where you live, a text to 911 may be an additional option. The FCC keeps an up-to-date spreadsheet of cities that support text to 911. The list is updated once a month. If you attempt to use text to 911 and it's not supported in your area, you will receive a message back letting you know no one received your message and you need to place a call. If it's unsafe to do so, text trusted and responsive contacts so they can place a call on your behalf.

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If you can't move, call out for help.

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Voice assistants can help, too

If you get hurt while working on a home project, for example, or you cut yourself, fall or otherwise find yourself in need of help, take a deep breath and remember that your phone likely has a built-in voice assistant that can call 911 for you. iPhone users need to say, "Hey Siri, call 911" while Android users should be able to say, "OK Google, call 911."

Make sure you have Hey Siri enabled on your iPhone by going to Settings > Siri > Listen for Hey Siri. If you use Android, long-press on the home button to bring up Google Assistant and say "Setup Voice Match."

If you're home and have an Amazon Echo nearby, the Alexa assistant will also call for help if you have an Echo Connect, which allows your Echo to make phone calls for you, including to 911.

Of course, if you have an Apple Watch Series 4, it has built-in fall detection that will call for help when it detects a fall and you are unresponsive -- as long as you have it set up.

Hopefully, you never have to use any of the above advice, at least in an emergency situation. But if you do, try to remain calm and remember that you have a very powerful device in your pocket that can help you get out of horrible situations if you use it right.

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