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What is a Phone Tree?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A phone tree is a network of people organized in such a way that they can quickly and easily spread information amongst each other. These trees are especially common among parents, who often want to be able to communicate quickly about canceled events and other issues, and they are also used by activists and a variety of other groups as well. Setting up a solid phone tree takes time, but many people feel that it is well worth the effort, since the list can be used again and again.

One easy to way to visualize a phone tree is as a phone pyramid. One person at the top of the pyramid calls two people, who each call two more people, and so on, until every person in the list has been called. This allows people to distribute information quickly, without placing the burden of work on one person. There are a number of advantages to setting up this type of organization, not least of which is the ability to distribute information quickly in a crisis.

Generally, a phone tree is organized by a single person, to eliminate confusion. The person organizing the tree collects information about all of the individuals who should be included in the list. For example, a small rural school might have a tree that could be used to notify people about canceled school days and other events of relevance to the school.

Ideally, the organizer would collect at least two contact numbers for each person, including a contact number with an answering machine or voicemail. Once the list of people is collected, it can be divided up to create an organized phone tree, which is copied and given to all members of the group. Because the people at the top of the tree are crucial, it is a good idea to pick the most reliable members of the group for these positions, ensuring that information will be passed on.

The decision to activate a phone tree should not be taken lightly. It can be a good idea to discuss situations in which the tree would be activated with the people on the list to ensure that they know what they are getting into by agreeing to be included. As a general rule, phone trees are used for information that requires rapid action. For example, activists might use one to alert each other to an important event, or a small town might use it to notify people to evacuate their homes in the wake of a natural disaster. If the information someone wishes to spread is not time-sensitive, it might be better communicated through notes, casual phone calls, or email.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon341124 — On Jul 08, 2013

Well, it seems to me that it's pretty easy to solve this by just including some redundancy. Like in the tree


/ | \


/|\ /|\ /|\

efg hij klm

You can make sure everyone has the lists of the people below them (e.g. B would have e, f, and g's list, so if B couldn't reach e, B could make e's calls instead.)

Alternatively, you could set it up so that each person not only calls everyone underneath them, but also the neighbor to their right, on the tree.

(That is, B would call C, e, f, g. C would call D, h, i, j. And D would call B, k, l, m. Done that way, every person makes one extra call, and receives one extra call. If they only receive one call(instead of two), then they know something's up, and call the other person who was supposed to call them.

Okay, that second method could lead to chaos pretty rapidly. But it should be pretty foolproof (Anyone who misses a call gets hit by their parent, their left and right neighbor, and eventually their three children.), and not unduly stress anyone in the tree. At most, anyone in the tree will make a total of five calls.

The point is, I've spent -- what, a half hour thinking about this? There's probably a much more efficient method than one of the ways I just made up.

By anon316768 — On Jan 30, 2013

@anon18125 is right. Manual phone trees where they rely on many individuals to be available to continue the calls can fail. Automated phone messaging services offer an automated phone tree option at a marginal cost.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 26, 2013

@orangey03 – I'm pretty sure that only small schools use phone trees. You're right about it being risky, but chances are that if something like inclement weather is expected, those parents are staying alert to potential school cancellations all day.

I live in the South, and every time it snows, the schools let out around here. On days when snow is expected, everyone either stays tuned in to the radio or television to hear about school cancellations. Often, schools let out as soon as they snow starts to fall, and parents have to be alerted.

The bus will always take kids home if no one comes to pick them up, but the parents need to either make arrangements for a babysitter or give the kids a key so that they can get inside if they are old enough to stay home alone. Phone trees are very helpful in this situation.

By orangey03 — On Jan 26, 2013

I've never heard of schools using phone trees. Wouldn't this be kind of risky, considering that many parents might not be able to answer their phones while at work, and if they can't receive the message, they can't pass it on to everyone else, and the tree would stop there?

By JackWhack — On Jan 25, 2013

I have a big extended family. We currently have no phone trees set up, but I think it would be a great idea.

At Christmas time, my cousin who always hosts the yearly party calls everyone to tell them the day and time. It sure would make it easier on her if she could rely on a phone tree.

By feasting — On Jan 24, 2013

So many people these days just don't answer their phones. It might be because they don't recognize the number that someone is calling from, or it could be that they have left their phones on silent and forgotten to turn them back up.

For that reason, the phone tree I'm involved in also gets the email addresses of everyone in the group. The protocol is to first try calling the person, and if they don't answer, you send a text message. If they don't respond to the text message, you send them an email.

Chances are that they will check at least one of these. Unless they are asleep or something, they will receive the message one way or another.

By accordion — On Jan 06, 2011

One of the good things about a phone tree is that all you need to be a part of it is a phone. While messaging services and email alerts and address lists are becoming more and more the way of the future, there are still areas where many if not most of the people in a community have limited internet access; in small rural communities, many people may also not have personal cell phones, but instead share phones with others in their family, making it difficult to pass or receive information immediately that is sent in text form. Therefore phone trees are a good backup system, even in our more modern, internet-based world.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 05, 2011

@anon18125 It's true that there are many possible problems with phone trees. Like you mention, a more modern concept that is on the rise is automatic messaging- my college start to use a service a few years ago that would alert anyone in the list of natural disasters or any of other dangers in the area, sending messages to their cell phones or emails.

By anon18125 — On Sep 15, 2008

One problem with a phone tree is when one or more people in the tree are not available. This can cause delays in delivering important messages to everyone in the organization. An alternative that should be considered is a messaging service like the one that Freedom Message provides. There are a number of companies that provide messaging services that deliver messages reliably and efficiently.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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