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In last three years the world experienced three huge disasters. The first, in January 2010, was a strong earthquake in Haiti which caused the death of about 250 thousand people. In March 2011 an especially strong earthquake hit the shores of Japan and caused a Tsunami wave, which climbed at its peak to the height of 38 meters. The earthquake itself did not cause damage or casualties in Japan due to the amazing early preparation of the Japanese, but the Tsunami caused 19,000 dead and large scale damage. The same wave caused also the melting of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, along with an extensive and severe radioactive leakage. The third disaster, in October-November 2012, was the hurricane “Sandy”, also called “Frankenstorm”, which hit the eastern coast of USA causing large floods and enormous infrastructure damages.
The social media was the common factor in all tree events, in which an extensive use of communication was made by the victims and the needing ones, for contact with their family and friends and with the rescue forces and authorities. While communication infrastructures were collapsing, due to physical damages or congestion of calls, the internet proved itself as a surviving infrastructure. Also in Israel, during “Pillar of Defense” action, after rockets were shot in the direction of Tel Aviv, it was not possible to make calls by most of the cellular networks, but the internet went on functioning.
It is important to note that in each mobile phone, and in particular Smartphone, there are actually two communication channels. The first is the Voice channel for normal calls and SMS messages. The other one is the Data (or G3), which is used for browsing the internet, and make Skype calls or messages via WhatsApp. The “Voice” technology is an old one and on its way to become obsolete, and the communication companies understand that they are going to earn most of their money from the Data channel, and therefore they invest in it more and more. In 13.3.2013 the consulting and strategy company Chetan Sharma published a report stating that already in the 4th Quarter of 2013 the communication income from Data will exceed the income from Voice (this is a continuous worldwide trend since the appearance of Smartphones. )
The three disasters showed the world that the Data technology has become the almost exclusive communication channel, that goes on functioning and can be used in all situations.
So it happened that in the last three years more and more rescue and first responder organizations have integrated in their systems also the use of social media in order to broadcast information to the public, and mainly for receiving information from them. The American Red Cross even established the first operations room of its kind for surveillance, monitoring and real time analysis of emergency events at the social media. The New York Fire Department earned much credit after “Sandy’, due to their intensive use of Twitter during the event, for dispatching information and providing answers to the many citizens in need.
But still, all over the world, the citizens and also the first responders are used that in order to report about an event a phone number needs to be called, be it 100 in Israel or 911 in the USA. The problem arises when the (voice) lines collapse and it is not possible to call. So how are the citizens expected to call and deliver their messages?
The above is demonstrated well in the following tweet of FDNY, where they ask the citizens to stop publish distress calls by Twitter and to call the telephone emergency center:
In order to solve this problem, the authorities in USA and in Japan are working on a development that will replace the need for dialing.
Already during 2013, Americans will be able to send text messages (SMS) to the 911 center. This solution is intended for people who are in danger and who may be even more endangered by dialing. In any case the American authorities emphasize that in case of emergency, a telephone call to the 911 center has to be made. On the other hand, in Japan they took the response one step further and are developing the possibility for citizens to send emergency messages via the social networks, such as Twitter. This need arose following the disaster that hit the country in 2011 in which many citizens could not get in contact with their emergency center (119). There are still many problems and challenges the Japanese developers have to cope with, like false calls, prevention of duplications, and even practical jokes.
There are three actors in the emergency activity in social networks– the companies managing the networks, like Facebook and Twitter, who invest in their upgrade and adapting to the emergency needs; emergency authorities trying to develop systems and methods of usage of the social media during normal situation and emergency; and – the citizens who make constant and continuous use of the networks and who have discovered their power and great capabilities in emergency situations. By the way, the use of social networks in Israel is just at its infancy, as well as the public awareness of their usability during emergencies. In any case, it is recommended to follow and read the pages of the Israeli emergency authorities, like the Home Front Command and Police, providing lifesaving information during emergency situations.
Let us not know of any disasters.
By Tomer Simon, MPH
Disaster and emergency preparedness expert
The Israeli website for disaster and emergency preparedness