Fort McMurray’s ferocious wildfire ignited a hungry need for information among the people fleeing it.
People shared video on Facebook, evacuees tried to keep track of family members and officials updated residents on Twitter.
In a disaster, however, mobile devices have two vulnerabilities — the ever-dwindling battery and their dependence on a complex, fragile wireless system that thousands of other people are also frantically using.
Cell towers are just as vulnerable to a disaster like a wildfire as any other piece of infrastructure.
But when the battery winks out, or your phone can’t connect to a network, there’s always radio.
Perhaps surprisingly, your phone may be able to switch roles and work as a traditional FM radio — if its maker, or your wireless company, allows it. (In that case, the phone is literally a radio, not a mobile device streaming audio.)
To work, the device needs headphones, to work as an antenna. You don’t have to listen on the headphones — they just have to be attached.
“The FM radio chip is just like a regular receiver that you have in your car, or on your home stereo,” explains Barry Rooke of the National Campus and Community Radio Association.
The organization is lobbying to have wireless carriers allow the capability.
It’s hoped that cooler temperatures and four days of rain will slow the growth of the wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta, which has now grown to the size of Prince Edward Island.
“It’s something that’s already in most Android phones, already on Blackberry phones. It’s something that’s just not accessible to people right now because either the telecom provider or the manufacturer hasn’t enabled it for the public to use.”
In radio mode, a smartphone uses very little battery power and doesn’t need connectivity, Rooke explains.
Radio is a traditional way for governments to communicate with people during a disaster — radios are cheap, very common and use little electricity, and communication is instant.
What phones have an FM radio chip? The makers of the NextRadio app say that it works on 67 devices made by 10 manufacturers. The list includes 21 Samsung phones.
Apple Iphones are sold with an FM chip that isn’t activated, says a paper released by the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)
Nearly all smartphones sold in the U.S. have a radio chip, but only about a quarter have one that’s activated or easily activated.
Apple is a “tough nut to crack,” says B.C. Association of Broadcasters president Kevin Gemmell.
“Blackberry — the chip is generally available, certain platforms of Android — the chips are widely available at this point in time. So, it’s really iPhone, but iPhone is also a huge piece of the market share.”
For your phone to work as a radio, it has to have an FM chip installed and your provider has to be on board.
Carriers are reluctant to allow the technology because they don’t want to lose the bandwith used for streaming audio, Gemmell says.
“It’s not that they have a hate on for radio, or for our technology, or for what we do. I think they were just trying to monetize as best they can.”
“We have a lot of devices that have that chip enabled. And it’s the manufacturer’s choice whether the functionality is available,” said Telus spokesperson Luiza Staniec. “Some have it enabled and some are not.”
Telus does offer devices that can be used as radios, Staniec says.
“The decision to enable FM chips on devices lies solely with the manufacturers,” Rogers spokesperson Andrew Garas said. “Select devices already have FM chips enabled, and we anticipate there will be more in the future.”
Bell and Shaw Communications did not respond to a request for comment.
The technology would have a crucial role in an emergency when “your smartphone becomes a brick,” says Craig Fugate, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration.
“There’s this tendency to think that things that work in our everyday lives are going to work the same way in a disaster,” he explains in a Youtube video.
“Disasters are local, and the most important information is going to come from local broadcasters that are plugged in to local officials telling you what’s going on on the ground.”
“I wasn’t able to reach any of my friends,” remembers Fort McMurray evacuee Vishal Shukla, who spoke to Global News reporter Jill Croteau Thursday. “The telephone was not working. The tower fell down, or something. I think the FM radio stuff is a good and brilliant idea, and if it was in place I would have for sure used that.”
With files from Asha Ruparell
Global News is a division of Corus Entertainment Inc. The company’s portfolio includes a network of leading news-talk radio stations, as well as classic rock, country, new rock and contemporary music formats.
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.