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Technology can speed emergency responses

By Mariah Smith
Extension Center for Technology Outreach

Image of Mariah Smith

Recent national tragedies have reminded us once again how important it is to stay in touch with loved ones and emergency response officials for breaking news. Being technology-ready before disaster strikes is critical to saving lives, connecting friends and family, and assisting first responders.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, initial reports incorrectly suggested that the government had shut down cellphone service in an attempt to prevent mobile devices being used to detonate other bombs. What really happened is that cellular service providers were overwhelmed with the flood of telephone calls, emails, videos, text messages and social media updates that were being sent.

According to Ready.gov, text messages are the best way to communicate after a disaster as they use less bandwidth than a telephone call, email or social media update. Bandwidth is a term that basically refers to how much data can be sent back and forth between two points in a second. If everyone is trying to use his or her mobile device simultaneously, it results in the system being overloaded. For brevity, if you are OK, I recommend texting “IMOK,” which stands for “I’m OK.”

The website also suggested waiting 10 seconds before redialing if you are unable to complete a call due to overloaded networks. This allows the system a bit of reprieve to work through the congestion of people trying to call. Another option is to use Twitter to tweet your status to followers. Followers can subscribe to your tweets and receive them by text message. This feature allows you to convey the message once to many users without having to repeat information.

Emergency responders have used Twitter to disseminate information and correct rumors. The tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was one of the first examples of how people could use Twitter to gather information after a disaster. By using hashtags, Twitter users can mark their tweets by keyword. A hashtag might look like this: #hurricanesandy. Any person who wants to tweet about that topic can include the hashtag so that others can search for the keyword and follow those tweets.

When Hurricane Sandy struck, the American Red Cross deployed digital volunteers to respond to inquiries posted. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, “A 2010 American Red Cross survey found an alarming 75 percent of 1,058 respondents expected help to arrive within an hour if they posted a request on a social media site.” While first responders are busy, digital volunteers are becoming key in connecting people to emergency services.

Keeping your mobile device charged is critical, but it becomes even more so after a disaster. Put your mobile device in airplane mode, reduce the brightness of the screen and close out mobile apps that use up valuable battery life. Be sure to have a hand-crank cellphone charger, solar charger or battery charger on hand to keep connections to loved ones open if the power goes out. If you don’t have a mobile phone or device, consider getting a prepaid phone and placing it in your emergency preparedness kit.

Disasters happen, but being tech-ready can make for an easier, quicker response. Take time this week to make sure you and your family have a tech-ready plan in place.

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Released: April 25, 2013
Contact: Mariah Smith, (662) 325-3226

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