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Fact Check-Changing cell-phone voicemail during an emergency is not recommended

Social media advice to change the voicemail message on a cellular phone if lost or stranded is not good advice, first responders say.

A post on Facebook (here) shares an image text reposted more than 21,000 times that advises what to do "If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken-down car, etc… and you notice your cell phone is *low on power*."

The image text directs the reader to “change the voicemail ” to a message that gives approximate location, the time, the date, 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 post concludes by sharing, “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.”

Similar posts can be seen on Instagram (here) and Twitter (here). The posts appear with the hashtags #couldsaveyourlife and #phonedeadbutvoicemailstillworks.

While these social media attempts to share life-saving information may sound helpful, some law enforcement and rescue organizations do not agree.

Rescuers from the Halifax Search and Rescue Team in Canada told the Miami Herald in an Oct. 24, 2021 article (here), "To be blunt, wasting time changing your voicemail could be the last thing you do."

“If you don’t call for help, and you didn’t leave a trip plan, NOBODY IS COMING TO GET YOU,” a spokesperson for the search and rescue team said.

The Outdoorskillz.com blog (here) suggests that the first thing you do "if have a bit of battery life left and a signal bar or two" is to call 911.

Additional advice for lost or stranded individuals includes: always staying with the vehicle near the road or trail, composing an SMS text with vital information to trusted contacts who can alert authorities, and switching the phone to low battery mode or airplane mode to save power.

Pat Thorpe from the Texas-based Search One Team (www.searchone.org/) told Reuters via email that, in her opinion, setting up a new voicemail would take much more energy than texting.

“I would use the text function to send information,” Thorpe said.

This advice is echoed in this Oct. 26, 2021, piece from Backpacker.com (here) which also shares guidance on making a plan before excursions.

The U.S. government shares plans and preparedness kit-building tips, such as always having chargers and extra battery power on hand on Ready.gov (www.ready.gov/kit).

Sheriff Justin Smith told Reuters in an email sent on behalf of the National Sheriffs Association (www.sheriffs.org/about-nsa) that suggestions shared on social sites were "bad advice". The Colorado-based Sheriff said that his first advice was to let others know where you are going and when you expect to return.

“That way, search and rescue has information to work off of if you do not return for some reason,” said Smith.

Smith pointed out that you can only change your voicemail message if you can connect to the network, so “if you can reach your voicemail - you can reach 911”.

According to the law enforcement group, once connected to 911, not only can you share your situation with a trained emergency dispatcher, but they may also be able to pinpoint your location using tower triangulation or actual GPS coordinates.

Essentially, to best ensure one can get help in an emergency, having a plan in place, notifying loved ones of plans and always reverting to 911 as the first option to seek help are advised.

Survival tips on what to do if lost are viewable on the Forest Service’s website, here .

VERDICT

Missing context. Misleading social media advice to change voicemails in emergencies could cause delays or a lack of response from first responders if the person requiring assistance never calls for help.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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