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

Emily Montandon  |  Contributing Writer