Text Messages Aren't Enough When Natural Disasters Strike

Just in time for Hurricane Irene's arrival, a new survey from the Red Cross claims that social media is increasingly being used by Americans seeking information on natural disasters. A reliance on social media and text messages during emergencies has hidden dangers.

Red Cross

When a major earthquake struck the East Coast on Tuesday, residents were taken aback. Mobile networks and social media sites quickly overflowed with the traffic of users trying to confirm the extent of any damages. Thankfully, damages were minimal. The earthquake did, however, raise many questions about critical information and communication systems during times of disaster.

For example: How can we talk to each other during and after a weather emergency if towers and lines go down? Which technologies and media promise the most reliability? Who is reading our tweets when a crisis strikes? Are government agencies and emergency responders paying attention to Facebook more than to Google+ or Foursquare?

The American Red Cross has released a new survey that claims Americans are increasingly relying on the Internet and social media for disaster information. According to the Red Cross, 18% of Americans regularly rely on Facebook to obtain disaster information. The survey also claims that the Internet is the third most used medium to find out information about disasters—radio and television are more frequently used.

Facebook appears, by far, to be the most heavily used social media site for finding out disaster information. 91% of respondents polled over the phone and 78% of respondents online said they had used Facebook during natural disasters; another 25% of online respondents also used Twitter. Personal blogs, Flickr and tumblelogs such as Tumblr and Posterous lagged far behind.

A video teleconference on Facebook was held by the American Red Cross to discuss their findings. The conference had been planned a week in advance of the earthquake, and Hurricane Irene. Taking place at Facebook's Washington office, the event marks the Red Cross' first video teleconference on Facebook. Much of the discussion focused on the use of smartphone and Facebook applications to distribute emergency preparation information, with participant Stacy Elmer of the Department of Health and Human Services explaining how the agency has crowdsourced potential emergency preparedness apps.

The approach of Hurricane Irene—expected (as of press time) to be the most powerful storm to hit the East Coast in years—makes this an even more timely discussion to explore. Coastal states from the New England region to Florida are believed to be at risk for flooding and strong winds, with landfall anticipated in North Carolina Saturday.

Due to the way mobile phone networks are designed, they cannot accommodate the added strain caused by extra callers post-disaster. Mobile phone outages were reported on September 11; they also frequently occur during natural disasters. Landline networks are at risk for a different reason—major disasters often result in damage to the physical infrastructure of the phone network. Following Tuesday's earthquake, FEMA's Rachel Racusen forwarded a statement to the media urging “that members of the public use email or text messages if possible to communicate for the next few hours, except in cases of emergency, so that emergency officials can continue to receive and respond to urgent calls.”

For most people reading this article, FEMA's advice makes sense. The use of text messages, email, or social media services such as Facebook or Twitter during or after a disaster is second nature to wide swaths of the population. But for senior citizens, the poor, and people who simply don't have ready access to the Internet or a mobile phone to send text messages with, keeping tabs on friends and family post-disaster is difficult. Using text messages to check up on friends and families following natural disasters represents a significant financial expense for those living paycheck to paycheck or on a fixed income.

The Red Cross' survey reflects this. Respondents who use Facebook and the Internet to gather emergency information tend to reside in metropolitan areas and have both higher incomes and higher levels of education than other respondents. However, there was one interesting finding: Respondents with children in their households tended to be far more likely to use social media.

Keeping in contact via social media and text messages is wonderful in theory and works well during mild events such as the East Coast earthquake. But in genuine emergency situations such as Hurricane Katrina or the recent Mississippi River floods, the time delay caused by typing in SMS text messages or social media updates can cause risks to safety or property. As much as social media evangelists may claim otherwise, sometimes there is no substitute for voice-to-voice communication.

Instead, social media and text messaging are best suited for different roles during and following natural disasters or other emergency situations. Fast Company has written on the Army Corps of Engineers' use of Facebook to offer hyperlocal information to flood victims about flood risks, reconstruction, and insurance issues in their communities. During Hurricane Katrina, social media services were used to distribute aid to residents impacted by the disaster. When mobile phone lines were overloaded during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, SMS text messages helped relatives obtain information on the safety of hostages. Hotel guests who found themselves besieged by gunmen were able to establish an impromptu communications chain through the use of text messages.

Sadly, during emergencies, some people are "more equal than others" when it comes to communication. Older individuals, the less well-off, Luddites, and those who simply haven't acclimated themselves to the dubious joys of text messages, Facebook, or Twitter will face significant difficulties in keeping tabs on loved ones when the worst happens.

[Image: Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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5 Comments

  • Jon Calmes

    The argument that  "The time delay caused by typing in SMS text messages or social media updates can cause risks to safety or property" is ridiculous. compare that to dialing a number waiting for it to connect, and the chance of no answer, and this point is made moot. Studies have shown that the "less than equals" are the most active on cellular networks especially SMS. Nail in coffin: 5.3billion cell phone plans exist thats 77% of the world, 62% of the world doesnt have a toilet. 1.3 billion have a land line. http://mobithinking.com/mobile...

  • @MatthewBrowning

    Instant, muti-channel, bi-directional Communications are HERE!! This tech exists and is in use TODAY!!
    We have created a communications technology called YourNurseIsOn.com that helps Hospitals to INSTANTLY contact and confirm their healthcare providers by two-way phone, text and email. Putting the correct providers in the right places, right now is our mission- It helps decrease overtime spend, decrease mandatory overtime, decrease associated worker injuries, decrease staff turnover and, most importantly, increases patient/provider contact hours which results in improved patient outcomes! Here is a 90 second video- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... This Communications Technology SHOULD be in use by relief agencies to contact THEIR staff and volunteers by 2-way text, phone and email in seconds!I can be contacted here- http://www.linkedin.com/in/mat... Stay safe everyone!!

  • John Rice

    how about a national online databank where one can send a brief "I'm ok" message out to. Concerned loved ones would be able to access a loved ones status by SSN or full name. Why should Facebook get the whole burden. This would be a great use (for once) of our tax dollars. FIRSTGOV.GOV comes to mind.-  John Rice, Chicago Illinois

  • Cheryl Sansonetti

    One channel of communication will never accomplish the goal of reaching everyone, but SMS and social media have the power to reach many more than any other channel on their own. 90% of people don't carry a TV or radio with them, but they do carry their phone. These should be used in combination with other services to make sure everyone is reached during a time of crises.

  • Kari Parsons

    I couldn't agree more with this article. Finding and reading about disasters of all kinds is simply not enough. People need to actively participate not only in helping others heal after these storms blow through but in considering their own level of preparedness. The Red Cross will tell you to get a kit and make a plan but not where to get one. Situations like this should lead people to look into supplies and kits that are out there. Sites like www.1800prepare.com are not about panic, wilderness survival it is about preparing for the big and every day situations. Worth a check out.