Siren? What Siren? Emergency Alerts Coming to Smartphones

Siren? What Siren? Emergency Alerts Coming to Smartphones

The day when smartphones alert people to emergencies is not far off, as government agencies, social media and industry innovations combine to revamp national notification systems.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

Alerting people of timely news can save lives. Whether it is to warn them of impending weather events or to generate awareness of possible medical outbreaks, the ability to communicate one-to-many in a state of emergency has improved with mobile devices, sparking greater use of the technology.

Social Media and Text Messages: A Dual Approach

Two out of three adults connect to one or more social media platforms, using that connection to do more than socialize. Many “like” their children’s schools, weather organizations, a neighborhood watch and news organizations so they learn of breaking news or specific information that affects them.

Large organizations are also turning to Facebook and Twitter to get their message out quickly and efficiently in times of crisis. The devastating tornadoes in Dallas underscored the usefulness of social media to tell people of emergency situations and connect them to services. Twitter broadcast warnings and safety tips, so those in the tornado’s path were given precious minutes to take cover, reducing loss of life.

In addition, people went to Facebook’s Red Cross page and others, which assisted with services in the immediate aftermath when traditional communication channels were disabled.

Social media’s response in Dallas echoes previous efforts pioneered during last spring’s violent tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., which were refined last fall ahead of Hurricane Irene.

The social network also debuted its “I’m Safe” button last month, which works with other services like message boards to share information about care centers, medical resources and remediation efforts.

Great Expectations Could Be Hard to Fulfill

Trevor Riggen, American Red Cross director of mass care, underscores the value of social media in emergency response. The survey by the organization found 80 percent of the general population believe national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites to respond promptly.

The survey also pointed out nearly a quarter of the general population reported using social media to let loved ones know they are safe, and more than a third expect requested help to arrive in less than one hour.

The public’s expectation, however, may be hard for organizations to meet. Riggen admitted it is not yet possible for the Red Cross to respond as quickly to social media requests as people expect. He said while the agency uses a variety of platforms, it’s an “enormous challenge” to monitor the volume of social media traffic, pointing to some sticking points with the promising technology.

This drawback likely prompted the Department of Health and Human Services to explore how other technology can help people in emergency situations. Specifically, the agency is developing a text message service that local authorities can broadcast to inform people during emergencies.

The advantage of text messaging over social networks is that nearly everyone has a cell phone, giving them access to information if they have trouble reaching a Web page. Also, people often think to send a text message to immediate family before considering a wider posting on Facebook, elements the federal government will need to consider as it moves forward with plans of its own.

A Federal PLAN

The Federal Communications Commission announced last year it is developing a Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, in partnership with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Spring, to roll out in test areas before launching nationwide.

The FCC says the system will send texts from the President, alarms for natural disasters and even messages about missing children to specially chipped smartphones across the country.

“This is the ability to have your mobile device be an emergency alert device. Government officials can send alerts in the event of major disasters, can do it on a localized basis, and can make sure that the alerts get through even if there’s network congestion,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

The program highlights the growing understanding that more people rely on mobile phones, with their portability and connectivity, making the devices invaluable and more affordable not only for personal use, but also for public communication.

FDA Explores Mobile Apps

Other federal agencies are finding unique applications for text-based emergency response. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration realized the need for a mobile response during the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak and is developing an alerts app to communicate vital drug reaction information during public health crises.

The agency approved the use of the experimental drug Peramavir during the outbreak, but the only way health workers could report adverse reactions to the drug and receive urgent communications from the FDA was through a slow and inefficient desktop-computer based system.

As a result, more than ten percent of adverse drug reactions went unreported, according to the agency. The FDA launched several apps at that time to keep the public and healthcare providers informed about H1N1, but there was no single, reliable source people could count on for information.

The program, named Real-Time Application for Portable Interactive Devices, or RAPID, is developing a prototype that features video and photographic capabilities to record and circulate videos and pictures of drug reactions, as well as audio recordings of a patient’s medical history. RAPID will also allow health care workers to view medical images, such as x-rays and EKGs, and include GPS functionality to track adverse drug reactions and determine possible patterns.

The FDA’s mobile alert system will help the agency coordinate with other governmental agencies using mobile devices to communicate with emergency personnel and the public.

The Industry Pushes Forward

The tech industry is also developing its own initiatives to respond to disasters quickly and effectively. Search giant Google is launching a new Public Alerts page to keep Google Maps users abreast of natural disasters or other emergencies, mapping what is going on, how severe officials expect the emergency to become and what resources can help, which could be especially valuable to those far from home and unfamiliar with the area.

Google is integrating feeds from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Weather Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) into Google Maps to offer the service.

People can use the Public Alerts page to search for a specific item by going directly to Google Maps and typing a name and place for a potential disaster.

Large-scale mobile alert systems are not without drawbacks, however. Late last year, Verizon apologized after texts from the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS, falsely warned Verizon users in New Jersey of a civil emergency and ordered them to “take shelter now,” setting off widespread panic. This incident underscores the need for testing and innovation in developing public warning systems.

Still, governments, organizations and the tech industry recognize people increasingly turn to mobile phones and away from traditional radio and television sets for information, and understand cell phone messaging systems are an efficient way to reach millions of smartphone users at one time during emergencies, when every moment counts.

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