Posts Tagged ‘text messaging’

Cities Reconsider Emergency Communications

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

USA Today reports that cities are reconsidering their plans to alert residents to disaster threats via text messages owing to unanticipated problems with this form of communication. Last June, 100,000 residents of Fort Collins, Colorado did not receive tornado alerts delivered to them via cell phone and e-mail messages. In addition to technical failures, such as this one, the expense of this form of alert can be substantial for cities that are under increasing financial pressure.

To the USA Today report, I can add a concern of my own – information overload. New York City’s Office of Emergency Services offered an SMS text message alert system for disasters happening in New York City. I signed up for the service, which was free, believing that advance notice of any disruptions would help us to plan our work and commutes to and from the office. I soon terminated my subscription. The problem was information overload. I was receiving notices of emergency calls such as EMS being called to a site where a body was found floating in the Hudson River and other such events which, while pertinent to the emergency responders, are not relevant to us. After receiving several hundred such messages each day, I began to appreciate that any messages that would be pertinent to us would be lost in the clutter. So I now rely on weather and other alert systems through the news radio. I find it to be more efficient for the limited resources, particularly in terms of attention bandwidth, of a small business.

When Disaster Strikes, Calls Often Do Not Go Through

Friday, September 12th, 2008
Hurricane Ike Approaches

Hurricane Ike Approaches

There were widespread disruptions in telephone service in Southern California following their recent earthquake, as callers overloaded both landlines and wireless systems. One wireless carrier reported an 800% increase in call volume following the earthquake, prompting emergency responders to urge citizens to restrict their calls so that 911 calls could go through (source: The Los Angeles Times). Such disruptions are common in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and are particularly frustrating as people are anxious to connect with their loved ones to assure their safety. These disruptions may cause particular hardship for smaller businesses, which typically cannot diversify their geographic risk to work from multiple, remote locations. However, there are simple, basic steps that every small business owner should take now to prepare for the inevitable future disruptions:

1.    Make sure that your employees and family members become familiar with text messaging, which often works even when landline and cell phone communications are disrupted. Cell phones have two communication channels: one for the negotiation protocol to establish the call, which has no real time requirements, and a data channel that transports the actual digital voice data stream, and requires real-time quality of service attributes that require capacity on the network. SMS messages are sent over the protocol channel; therefore they don’t arrive in real time, but with a few seconds’ or minutes’ delay. However, the protocol channel is never as busy as the data channel, so if the network is congested (e.g. all calls during emergencies), the protocol channel is the best bet. (SMS stands for “short message service”, or text messaging.)

2.    Here is a tip verbatim from the book: think in reverse for forwarding critical business calls. The cell phone is the natural backup solution for landlines. The question is how to automatically connect land- and cell-phone based service so that the cell phone service would take over once the landlines have failed. The problem is two-fold: once the landlines have failed, it is not possible for you to forward them to the cell phones. Moreover, in an emergency, such as an earthquake, you want to evacuate quickly and should not put yourself in harm’s way by returning to your office to deal with the phones. The solution is developed by thinking in reverse. Use the cell phone as your general business contact number. Program the phone in such a way that any incoming call is forwarded to your land-based business phone number when the cellular phone is switched off. If your land-based line fails (or you are unable to return to your office to access it), you simply switch on your cellular phone, and voilà. This is what I did on the morning of 9-11, when I evacuated the World Trade Center, but it was not safe to return to my office. I went home to shelter in place and turned on my cell phone to receive all incoming office calls.

3. I also pay $40/month/person to have a second cell phone with service provided by a different carrier from a different area code for major disruptions in cell communications services. This approach may be of limited benefit when a large geographic area is affected by disaster (such as the Gulf Coast post-Katrina when cell phone towers were all down), but it can help you if you are evacuated to another region and can access a non-local carrier. More importantly, it can help for a less widespread disaster, which is the statistically more probable event.

With Hurricane Ike approaching Texas, small businesses in the affected area should learn from the experience of our peers in Los Angeles and prepare accordingly for possible disruptions in communications.