Short message service can be a valuable tool in a crisis.

by / August 8, 2006

Earlier this year when East Timor was crippled by political unrest, the country's foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, reportedly notified the prime minister of his intention to resign in protest via text message -- because short message service (SMS) had become one of the country's most reliable ways to communicate.

SMS, designed to send text messages of 160 characters or less, is proving to be a valuable tool in the emergency communications arsenal in times of crisis. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, SMS was one of the only methods of communication.

"What's interesting is less and less people use SMS, but it's a very effective tool," said Matt Foosaner, director of Sprint's Emergency Response Team.

"Everybody wants that instant voice communication, and now we want data communications with almost streaming video capability, but SMS is like one of those tried-and-true tools in your toolbox," he said. "It's the wrench that isn't quite as slick looking, but when you need it, it typically works very effectively for what it is."

Keeping It Simple
Text messages are less vulnerable to the network congestion that accompanies most disaster situations for several reasons, Foosaner explained. First, they are much smaller. "The amount of ones and zeroes required for a text message is substantially less than a voice message," he said.

They are also less complex. While a text message makes its way across the network as one little packet of electronic data, voice data requires the network to break a continuous stream of data down into packets, and reassemble it to produce a continuous audible stream at the other end.

"Sometimes if everyone is trying to call into the network, the cell phones are impacted or the publicly switched telephone network is getting congested, you know sending one bursted message, even if it's a two-way message, coming back is a lot easier on the network than trying to sit there and hold a conversation, and drive and pass from one cell site to another because it's just done," Foosaner said. "It's instantaneous. It's one message out."

Another factor is that text messages do not take the same signal path that voice calls take, said Cosmas Zavazava, who is the head of Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and Emergency Telecommunications for the International Telecommunication Union, as well as the union's focal point for emergency telecommunications. Messages sent via SMS are sent through an SMS center, rather than point-to-point. This store-and-forward method ensures that messages are received whether the recipient's device is on the network or not; so should a user turn his or her phone off, he or she will still receive the text message when the phone is turned back on.

SMS also has drawbacks -- it doesn't operate in real time, so messages may be delayed for hours, or dropped altogether -- when communications networks become overwhelmed.

"Congestion is a lesser problem than in the voice traffic channel. Users are not subject to the same traffic congestion patterns encountered by other communication methods, like voice, and users can send messages at almost any time," Zavazava said. "However, other network characteristics like signal latency can impede the progress of SMS messages.

"SMS is neither instant nor real-time," Zavazava continued. "The messages can arrive within a few seconds of being sent, or they can be delayed for hours due to network congestion. But as I said, because the messages are normally short, this is unlikely unless it's a major disaster, and everybody's trying to send messages at the same time."

Using a queuing method rather than point-to-point means messages may cause delays, but denial of service is much less likely than with voice, where if there is no opening to carry the data, the call is immediately dropped.

While no one can guarantee 100 percent delivery, Foosaner said SMS is much more reliable nowadays than it was in the past.

"The systems today are very different than paging 10 or 15 years ago, when if you did it, you [were] lucky if it got completed. These are much more intelligent networks that actually monitor the traffic of the SMS, and they will keep resending it," he said, adding that SMS networks will make numerous attempts to deliver a message until an opening is found.

Weathering the Storm
When Hurricane Katrina thrashed New Orleans, SMS was extremely handy in coordinating evacuations and other emergency response activities, said John Lawson, former CIO of Tulane University in New Orleans.

The university temporarily evacuated several students and staff to the Jackson State University campus in Mississippi, while some critical staff stayed in New Orleans during the storm.

As the storm knocked out landline and cellular networks, the New Orleans group was left without reliable means of voice communications. They had satellite phones, said Lawson, but those were rendered useless by the cloud cover. "It was really only serendipitously that we discovered that SMS continued to work because they could still see a carrier signal."

Staff members who stayed behind in New Orleans -- including the president, chief financial officer and employees at the hospital Tulane operates jointly with Hospital Corp. of America -- sent updates and directions via SMS to staff in Jackson so they could begin recovery efforts immediately.

The president also sent messages to Jackson to be posted for the student body and staff on the Tulane University Web site, which in an emergency, is hosted in another state. The Web site kept students and staff informed about the university's status. For example, when the levees broke, Lawson said, students who were temporarily evacuated to Jackson knew they would not be able to return immediately and could begin making other arrangements.

SMS also helped track down other evacuees, said Lawson. A message could be sent to any cellular device with a New Orleans area code. Even if voice communication was impossible, a text message could reach evacuees wherever they were. "That's how I found out, for example, where my family was."

While you can't plan for every situation, Lawson said it is important that executives in any organization know how to use SMS.

"Many executives will perhaps already have a Windows Mobile, Treo or some device that has a keyboard that allows them to type a little bit easier. But even if they don't, if they have a standard cell phone, they need to know how to communicate using short message service if they have to," Lawson said. "That's just one arsenal in the attempt to maintain communication. You still need to think about the satellite phone even though it doesn't work perhaps right in the middle of a hurricane."

Lawson said it is most important to remain flexible. "That's just got to be a part of the plan now -- the ability to be flexible and meet the unexpected need that absolutely will arrive," he said, adding that every disaster is different, and maintaining several communication avenues is important.

"SMS is just one link in the whole arsenal to try to maintain communication," Lawson said. "And in our case, it was the most reliable."

An SMS Plan
Because SMS can work across platforms, Foosaner said agencies can plan ahead by building preplanned message templates and an address book of recipients into an e-mail program, such as Outlook.

"So when you send out the e-mail, which actually gets converted into SMS when it hits the network, you've got built-in responses that make it easy for the folks under stress out in the field to respond to," he said. "Think of it as an SMS polling capability.

"You can report back to and let everybody know, 'I've accounted for all 95 of my team members out in the field.'"

He said the ability to request a receipt when the recipient receives the message can help with internal reporting and on-the-spot decision-making. It can also assist with recordkeeping, which is one of the least concerns during the immediate response but often desirable after the fact.

"Using SMS, particularly through an e-mail product, you get a receipt -- time, date stamped and for your own records, you get their responses," Foosaner said.

Once plans are in place, he recommends rigorously testing them. "Test them hard," he said, "so that you can modify and alter it if you need to rather than trying to scramble at the time."

Foosaner's team has supported more than 100 field training exercises, and he said very few organizations test their equipment to the point of failure. "You fail in training," he said, "so you succeed in the battle."

Part of that planning and testing must include as much redundancy as possible. If cell towers are completely destroyed, SMS communications won't be sent or received.

"No network is 100 percent guaranteed," Foosaner said. "Everybody designs it as best they can. Given acts of God, so to speak, disasters, earthquakes or hurricanes, you know there's only so much you can do against 200-mile-an-hour winds on a piece of antenna."

Nevertheless, Foosaner said, SMS in its simplicity has a place in emergency planning.

"It gets passed up by the more sophisticated tools coming out, but you know every tool should be thought of when you're planning for disaster preparedness, for continuity of operations and emergency response," he said. "There are going to be times when that rusty, old wrench still works, and it's going to help you out."
Emily Montandon Contributing Writer