The recent “severe” winter weather in New Orleans got me thinking about the use of ICTs for disaster prevention and warning. I was alerted that campus would be closed by text message sent by the Tulane Emergency Alert system and was also told about various road closures (such as the I-10 shut down) via text message. This method seemed to be the simplest and smartest way to communicate vital information with a large population. Could this same system be expanded to communicate pertinent information in disaster situations?
The answer appears to be yes it can. The FCC in response to the 2006 Warning Alert and Response Network Act has been working with wireless carriers to establish a system of nationwide alerts which could spread information in case of a disaster to all mobile phones in the United States. The FCC describes the plan as consisting of three levels or phases. “The first would be a national alert from the president, likely involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The second would involve “imminent threats,” which could include natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes or even university shootings. The third would be reserved for child abduction emergencies, or so-called Amber Alerts.
Receiving these messages could also be free from carrier charges and be delivered by a unique audio signature or “vibration cadence.”
In the developing world the same systems are under construction. Before the 2007 tsunami in Sri Lanka text messages were use to alert people to evacuate even before official television and radio broadcasts were interrupted with the alert. There was no official text message warning system in place but those that lived on the coast received text messages from friends hours before the official warning were released which told them to leave.
The government attempted to send out emergency phone calls but the volume of traffic jammed the system and made phone calls impossible. In the future the “National Telecommunications Authority has now asked subscribers to stick to text messaging during national emergencies.”
Once an official text message alert system is in place the government could use it not only to warn people of impending disasters but also spread information about relief efforts. The system could allow residents to know about refugee camps, food drops, and alert people when it is safe to return home.
Currently many opt-in system exist for spreading information about tsunami and hurricane alerts but many governments are working on systems that will spread these types of alerts to everyone without the need to sign up independently.