A current report about the role of mobiles in emergencies and disasters was recently published on behalf of the world’s leading cellular industry association, the GSMA. It concludes: mobiles are appropriate for individual communication after restoration of the infrastructure. For alerting and warning immediately before and after the disaster, mobiles cannot play an important role. Broadcast networks, ideally satellite-based, are recommended for this purpose.
In the report “The Role of Mobiles in Disasters and Emergencies”, the leading GSM Association looks at the functional efficiency of mobile networks during the severe natural disasters of 2005, including the Indian Ocean tsunami, the flood in southern Germany, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan. In those emergency situations, millions of people used their mobiles to reach their families, to call for help, to receive and transmit important news. The result was congestion and ultimately network breakdown. GSM did not withstand the force of nature.
The researchers found that mobiles do not play an important or even a supplementary role in early warning. GSM equipment and networks are not qualified to stand as the sole medium of emergency communication, according to the report. Information broadcasting must be decentralised and especially rapid. To warn as many people as possible of imminent disaster, “one-to-many” technologies are necessary, such as radio, TV or other broadcast services, including paging services with regional coverage. Timely prevention and emergency services are only possible when official information can be broadcast immediately. The study also shows that, especially in emergencies, the rule “text not talk” is very important for public users, because text messages require less of the network capacity and hence can be transmitted better and faster in peak times than voice calls.
While the report does not indicate special characteristics of every possible broadcast medium for alerting and warning, it does emphasise the special risk of power failure in emergency situations. Hence paging technologies with regional coverage are much more suitable especially for warning and alerting. Transmitting stations and networks are very vulnerable. During Hurricane Katrina, the T-Mobile network in New Orleans was less than 50% available for five days, and it took another 27 days to regain near-normal coverage. Although the report does not give much attention to the duration of the breakdown, it is clear that satellite-based technologies are less vulnerable.
Where damage is lighter, a GSM network can be repaired faster. After the tsunami in southern Asia, network coverage was restored within a few days. Immediately after the disaster, when official information was unavailable, a mobile was a lifesaving help to receive urgent news, organise support or contact missing persons. Shortly after the disaster, GSM representatives find, mobile phones were the most important means of communication.
When emergencies and disasters can occur often because of natural events, technical faults and politically motivated attacks, it is essential to test communication media for suitability and issue recommendations, rather than simply relying on the capabilities that are normally available. The report of the GSM Association is therefore an important contribution. Its conclusion: The role of mobiles is neither in alerting nor in warning, but in the immediate aftermath. Furthermore, GSM can facilitate fund-raising for the affected region through pay services available from mobile phones.