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March 1, 2013

The Digital Divide in Emergency Management

Eric Klinenberg is an author, social scientist, and professor at NYU

Eric Klinenberg is an author, social scientist, and professor at NYU. He is also the author of Going Solo and Fighting for Air. His work has been published in Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Follow him @EricKlinenberg.

Of all the strange and sensational images produced by Superstorm Sandy, the scene I can’t stop thinking about took place a few steps from my apartment in Lower Manhattan, two days after the storm surge. Dozens of us were wandering up and down 7th Avenue, arms extended like zombies and eyes fixed on our hands. We were hunting—not for food or money or human assistance—but for a cellular signal. The power was out. Stores were closed. Food was beginning to spoil. But the more urgent problem was the communications breakdown. We wanted to know what was happening, to check up on friends and family, and to tell them how we were. We’d lost phone and Internet service at the moment when we most needed it, and thousands of us wouldn’t get it back for days. 

Two decades ago, a network breakdown would not have caused much trouble. Back then, landlines were ubiquitous, and when the power went out, Americans got their news about emergencies from old-fashioned, battery-operated radios. It was hardly a perfect system. Information came from the top down, and ordinary citizens were passive recipients, with virtually no capacity to tell officials or journalists what was happening in their neighborhood or town. But at least it was reliable: Designated emergency broadcasters had on-air personalities with local knowledge; radio towers and telephone lines were remarkably resilient; and smart regulations ensured that vital communications channels operated smoothly, even during peak demand.

The Cellular Shift

Weather-related disasters are growing more common and more extreme, yet we’ve failed to update our emergency communications system for the challenge. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), more than one-third of all U.S. households have no landline, and in cities the proportion of residents who’ve abandoned landlines for mobile phones is even higher. But Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have failed to require the mobile phone industry to ensure that they have protocols for maintaining and restoring service during outages. In theory, cellular networks could be made more flexible, robust, and reliable. Good public policies could ensure that they work better daily, and during disasters, too.

One reason we need more resilient networks is that new technologies can dramatically improve emergency communications. For instance, mobile phone providers have the capacity to send detailed messages to customers in locations where dangerous weather is approaching—a sophisticated reverse 911. In the run-up to recent storms, including Sandy and Nemo, meteorologists provided remarkably accurate and timely forecasts of where and when the damaging weather would hit. And according to NBC News, the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system (set up by the FCC and FEMA) did send a text blast before Nemo to subscribers with certain devices and operating systems. But if you don’t have one of those models (most of which are high-priced smartphones), you are out of the loop.

Likewise, the FCC established the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) but there are problems with it. Mobile providers can opt out and customers probably don't realize that they are ineligible to get those alerts. Even if your mobile carrier opts in, the default is to be out. The default should be to get the alerts. Why not create an emergency alert system in which all customers automatically receive a series of direct, personal, and geo-coded messages with information about local conditions and clear instructions on how to stay safe?

Today, many state and local governments, including New York, allow residents to opt in to programs that deliver this kind of information. The opt-in format may help protect customer privacy, but it comes at a great cost, because the least tech-savvy and lowest-skilled subscribers are far less likely to enroll in the program. That means the most vulnerable people (the old, the poor, and the sick), those who could benefit from advance warnings about, say, whether and how to evacuate, are also most likely to miss out on the protection that the new technology offers. No one had the choice to opt in or out of the Emergency Broadcast System. Why should it be different in the digital age?

Tech-Based Solutions

The more exciting innovations that smart phones bring to emergency communications are the capacity for two-way interaction and the production of knowledge from the bottom up. Mobile devices allow citizens and communities to report what’s happening in their homes and neighborhoods, and websites such as Ushahidi aggregate this information into maps, charts, and quantifiable data that can direct emergency relief and recovery efforts. Ushahidi has already improved responses to a number of natural and technological disasters, including the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010 and the “triple tragedy” (earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak) in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Resilience is one of its virtues, since any user with a battery-operated mobile device and an Internet connection can use it, even if the power is out. 

Not everyone has a mobile phone and an Internet connection, however, and one of the major challenges in emergency management is targeting resources to the old, poor, and isolated people who are less active online. Here more basic computer technologies can help. Whether the hazard is a heat wave, hurricane, earthquake, or flood, city governments should be able to predict the people and places that are most vulnerable. Today, some cities maintain databases with the name, address, phone number, and medical needs of frail and elderly individuals who will likely need special support during crises. In Chicago, for instance, emergency managers use their database to contact and directly assist those most at risk when a severe heat wave or cold snap hits. Now that extreme weather is becoming more common and more dangerous, every American city should have this kind of system in place.

In most cities, established community organizations and neighborhood groups play a key role in emergency management. Citizens, after all, are the true first responders, protecting and supporting each other long before the police, paramedics, fire fighters, or FEMA arrive on the scene. During and after Sandy, both entrenched and emergent organizations (such as Occupy Sandy) relied heavily on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, to produce hyper-local information, provide a forum for conversation, and plan all variety of actions. In the Rockaways, where some communities lost power for more than six weeks, cable companies responded to the strong demand for social media and cell phone service by sending out mobile recharging and Wi-Fi stations. The long lines frustrated residents, but they also provided an unexpected benefit: Giving people a chance to connect face-to-face.   

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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