With 560 billion texts sent worldwide in 2017, texting as a preferred means of communication is inextricably woven into the patchwork of connections that mark our daily lives. Business has embraced texting thanks to impressive open rates that find 90% of recipients read a text within three minutes. Texts have also become an important part of a broad security apparatus. Banks use texts to authenticate customers, and anonymous texting platforms are used in schools to call out potentially dangerous behaviors. In healthcare, a text arrives when your prescription is ready and when your appointment is pending, a convenience that’s saving providers millions and ensuring that patients don’t forget to see the doctor.
Texting has proven to be particularly useful in emergency situations. Working on 2G, 3G and 4G networks, it’s a viable way to deliver communications in a mass emergency when phone lines can get jammed and a text that’s virtually instant and simply says, “I’m ok,” relieves the stress on the system. Last month, FEMA employed the technology for the first time nationally with a “Presidential Alert” meant to test the WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) system and assess the readiness of the infrastructure to deliver a mass communication in the event of a major emergency. Anyone with a cell phone received the message. No opt out allowed.
But the effectiveness of texting in an emergency is only as good as the human-centered systems and equipment that support it.
Text Alerts for Emergencies in Local Communities
That’s what victims of the 2017 Northern California Firestorm discovered when emergency responders chose not to employ the WEA system that was already in place, believing it would confuse citizens who were not in harm’s way and cause unnecessary panic that might clog roadways and hamper escape. As a result, fire victims were forced to rely on calls to 911 (before phone lines burned down) and on neighbors banging on doors in the night.
A procedural post mortem revealed that Sonoma County’s WEA system had been tested and tweaked before the fires to address issues surrounding scattershot messaging and might have been an effective warning when other systems failed. In fact, just two months later, Southern California employed the WEA system when wildfires broke out there. Unwilling to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, the alert was considered a success and the catastrophic event resulted in no fatalities.
Just last month in Donggala, on the Island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, a devastating earthquake and accompanying tsunami caught residents of the Palu Bay community completely by surprise. In a devastating domino of mishaps, the initial earthquake destroyed the cell phone towers that would have sent the tsunami text alert in seconds, a system of buoys that should have sent signals about changes in wave patterns has been non-operational since 2012 and sirens along the coast that might have given warning (used currently in Oregon and Washington) simply don’t exist. The death toll has risen to over 1,200 victims.
Last year’s fires in Northern California and the tragic events in Indonesia last month are sobering reminders that employing text alerts or any mass communication response in a major emergency can be effective but is in no way the final answer for ensuring safety. Delivery cannot always be expected to withstand a 7.5 earthquake as in the case of Sulawesi, or emergency respondents may be desperate to make impossible decisions in seconds as in the case of the NorCal Firestorm.
My friend who lost her home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park section has told me—sometimes through tears, but more often with a smile now that she has found a new home—that she still feels very lucky. If it hadn’t been for her neighbor who employed a primitive but effective method of fist pounding on doors even as the fire had already engulfed many of the surrounding homes, she wouldn’t have made it out alive.
That was true of many of the residents in Coffey Park, a tight-knit community where folks had owned homes, raised children and looked out for one another for a generation. She ran from her home of 25 years in pajamas and flipflops and lost absolutely everything. When she returned weeks later, even tulip bulbs in the ground waiting for spring had been incinerated.
We were together when the presidential alert dinged on her phone a few weeks back. She laughed and said in her heavy Czech accent, “My neighbor’s fist was my wireless emergency alert.” As life-saving technologies evolve, communication the old-fashioned way may still be our most reliable chance at safety.
Maggie Harryman is a freelance copywriter who specializes in long-form writing, including case studies, white papers, website content and ebooks for the real estate, finance, technology, medical device and wine industries. She lives in Sonoma County and works throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.