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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 23 June 2011.
SMS is the perfect emergency communications channel, right? People always have their phones with them, especially in an emergency; you can easily send one message to a number of people; and you can text when you can’t talk.
Indeed, just over an hour after the earthquake in Christchurch struck earlier
this year, Vodafone New Zealand sent out the following message: “There is heavy
congestion on the network and we encourage people to text rather than call in
order not to overload the network and to preserve their phone’s battery life.”
In many countries, SMS is even being considered by the authorities as an
alternative emergency channel which the public can contact, equivalent to 911
in the U.S. and 10111 in South Africa.
On the other hand, a 2008 report from 3G Americas notes that there are serious
limitations on using SMS for emergencies, especially in the form of third party
Emergency Alert Systems (EAS). When sending out communications these
limitations include: that cellular networks have not been designed to cope with
emergency-scale traffic volumes via SMS, targeting users by location is
difficult, and there is no way to authenticate a message.
So which is it? Does SMS have a critical role to play in emergency
communications or not? I’d argue that of course it does, but only with careful
planning and understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
There is no denying that having access to more information during a crisis is a
good thing. Take a look at the real-time information the world received of the
earthquake in Japan earlier this year and the orderly way in which the Japanese
population has responded to the disaster. Compare this to the 1923 Great Kanto
earthquake in Tokyo, where rumours circulated that Koreans were taking
advantage of the situation, committing arson and robbery. This unfortunately
resulted in xenophobic attacks by the Japanese on the Koreans because there was
no way to verify or refute the word-of-mouth information or to share accurate
information. The importance of obtaining and providing accurate information
following natural disasters has been emphasized in Japan ever since.
For the reasons mentioned above, SMS should certainly be included in any
emergency communications plan, both for communicating with the general public,
as well as with the media and volunteer emergency responders. Depending on the
nature of the emergency, however, SMS should be used as appropriate to the
When in a disaster it is critical that unnecessary load on a network is reduced
to allow critical communications to get through. A person trapped should not
get a ‘network busy’ signal when trying to alert rescuers to his/her location.
For instance, in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the university
realised that the shootings took place over a two-hour period and more should
have been done to keep students away from the campus. After the event, a number
of third-party SMS services were touted as the answer to the problem. But in a
geographically concentrated area an attempt to SMS all students and staff would
have congested the single cell tower covering the area, preventing vital
information from being transmitted.
In a case such as this one, a system of tiered communication would need to be
set up, perhaps informing faculty heads, heads of residences and other
community leaders, who could then pass the information on via other channels.
Students and those affected should be told to SMS a single family member
outside the area who can then pass the message on.
During a more geographically dispersed event, it would be more feasible to
communicate with larger numbers of people and also target the people in
immediate danger, for instance during a flood or wild fires. Load testing
should be done to understand the capacity of the network when using a third
party EAS and these services should certainly not be blindly bought without
careful consideration. This sort of planning does not take place in the middle
of an emergency though, and preparation and education should be done for both
man-made and natural emergencies.
Don’t forget to combine SMS with other channels though. Twitter especially has
proven its value during a crisis, both in terms of keeping the media up to date
with what is happening on the ground and alerting rescue services to people in
danger. A year ago Haitian DJ Carel Pedre famously saved the life of a buried
earthquake victim by tweeting his location, which was picked up by rescue teams
Cell broadcast technology is another channel to consider adding to the mix. The
US will launch a pilot service in New York and Washington later this year that
sends messages to subscribers within a certain area via this technology.
Although limited by handset and network operators, this is a good way to
quickly reach a group of people within a specific area in an emergency. Unlike
an SMS, the message is delivered to the handset’s screen. In addition, cell
broadcast technology uses very little bandwidth. However it does not allow
inbound messaging or responses.
In conclusion, as with so many technical solutions to human problems, there is
not a silver bullet solution to EAS. But neither does it make sense to dismiss
SMS as an important component of an effective, carefully planned, emergency