From Hurricane Sandy to international catastrophes such as the tsunami in Japan, governments are increasingly using mobile technology in natural disaster preparedness and public safety response. With an estimated 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, mobile communications is fast proving to be the most effective and efficient means of reaching and informing the public when disaster strikes. How is mobile technology being used before, during, and after a crisis situation in the United States and around the world? How has mobile communications’ role in catastrophic situations changed, and how are public safety organizations utilizing this technology to make citizens safer and better prepared? What are the costs and benefits of using mobile technology to ready for and react to a major emergency?
On July 16, as part of the Mobile Economy Project, the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings hosted a discussion on mobile technology and its evolving role in disaster and public safety.
Participants can follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #TechCTI.
You may wonder, well what’s a 130-year-old institution like the Red Cross doing in the new world of mobile technology? But we are seeing it literally revolutionize disaster response. – Suzy DeFrancis, American Red Cross
Kristina Anderson shared her experience being wounded during the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007, and explained to the audience that very little public safety information was circulated on campus during the shooting, which made it difficult for students to protect themselves. Anderson called on the government to ensure that all campuses across the country have the funding to build strong public safety programs.
James A. Barnett Jr. noted that sometimes during emergencies phone lines are inoperable, and he emphasized that backup satellite networks are crucial; he cited the example of Haiti’s generators, which helped cell phone towers operate during the country’s devastating earthquakes.
Suzy DeFrancis emphasized that though mobile devices are an important tool for improving public safety, they should be used as an additive disaster response technique and not as a replacement for traditional forms of communication. She stressed that not everyone owns mobile devices, and relying entirely on social media during emergencies can leave the most vulnerable segments of the population unprotected.
Richard Price said that frequently when emergencies occur, members of the public capable of responding to the crisis are nearby but are unaware that the disaster is occurring. Price described his organization, the PulsePoint Foundation, which notifies CPR-trained individuals if there is someone experiencing cardiac arrest nearby to them.
Anita Stewart said during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, children often get lost, unsure how to protect themselves. She stressed that instructions issued during emergencies must be simple and easy for youth to follow; for instance, her organization uses Muppets to communicate public safety information accessible to all ages.
At Virginia Tech we saw students who were trying to be quiet, trying to get help, texting 911 and at that time those texts went nowhere. Now we’re on the road to making sure that those can be received and handled by the 911 call centers. – James A. Barnett, Venable LLC