Social media says you should do it so it's got to be right.  Right?  Well, not so fast.

There's a viral post making its rounds right now on social media about 'updating your voicemail' on your cell phone in the event of an emergency.  The highly-shared wisdom suggests that if you're lost in the woods or stranded in your vehicle and you "notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal", you should do following:

"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 hone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help."

Social media screen grab/Steve Tanko

The viral post offers that this advice might "very well save your life".  You post also suggests that you should copy and paste the tip or share it from your social media so that others will be 'in the know'.

Hang on.  This might not be the best plan of action.

A variety of law enforcement agencies throughout the country have quickly worked to let people know that this isn't the best course of action in a situation like that.  Even the National Search and Rescue School - a government organization that's a joint effort of the Coast Guard and the Air Force - entered the conversation on their respective social media pages.

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According to these posts, the scenario the viral advice offers likely won't work - at least not the way the reader (or the advice sharer) thinks it will.  The collective message from these law enforcement agencies, EMT, and the National Search and Rescue School is the following:

"Stay with your vehicle, stay near a road or trail.  If you have any battery life, send a text message.  It only takes a fraction of a second of data reception to get that message out.  This has a much better chance to make it through than updating your voice mail."

According to the information from these emergency-response agencies, here's why that initial advice about updating the voicemail is "poor advice":

  • Anything using voice on your cell phone uses more battery power than texts/SMS.
  • Detailed SMS messages use only a fraction of the data that a voice message uses.
  • SMS messages can transmit using a much weaker signal than a voice call requires. In this case, SMS messages will transmit with a voice message won't.
  • If you don't have a signal, you can't change your voicemail.  Attempting to do this will only waste whatever remaining battery you have left.

Additionally, the agencies collectively add that if you have some plenty of battery power, call 911.  Be sure to have coordinates or exact locations ready. However, they add that "because this [viral] scenario deals with low batter power", they provide the following tips and advice about what people 'should do instead':

  • Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth.
  • Put your cell phone in airplane mode (or turn off cellular) to conserve power.
  • Compose an SMS message to all of your trusted contacts.  "Text only - no images or attachments".  Write where you are, your condition, and any information needed to locate you.
  • When you have the message composed, turn off airplane mode (or turn your cellular service back on) and hit send.  Outgoing texts will try for a while with low or no signal before they cancel.
  • Check to make sure that the message went out.
  • If the text message is having difficulty sending, move your location a little to avoid hills and trees.
  • Stay with your vehicle.
  • Stay near a road or trail.

Overall, the best advice is to not panic.  Try to remain calm as best as you can.

The problem with viral social media posts is that they often pass off advice and information as facts.

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