Emergency communication remains a challenge ten years after 9/11

harm’s way, we need a mobile platform as the core medium for emergency communications. Social media is also a major new tool available to notify the masses. We need to embrace interaction with stakeholders in a grassroots manner to encourage information sharing via crowd sourcing.

The old practice of a unidirectional flow of information suggests that the public is a liability when they should be considered an asset. The public can help to gather and share critical information with first responders and emergency managers - and each other

HSNW: The recent earthquake on the East Coast highlighted once more problems with cellular networks during disasters, where thousands of users overload a network’s capacity leaving them unable to call or text. Are steps being taken to address this problem in disaster communication?

CR: The earthquake example amplified the need for a different method of communication during crisis or high volume incidents. These events are, for the most part, localized and have little to no impact on the millions of teenagers around the country who will continue to send and receive in excess of 100 text messages daily, regardless of an on-going event.

We saw after hurricane Irene, in many areas hard lines were completely compromised and took days to get back up, yet cell service continued. Many citizens who relied on cable packages for phone service suffered a power outage and lost this means of communication. Major carriers are working with third party companies on mobile solutions to help relieve communication logjams during emergencies. Prioritized delivery of critical messages is possible, but this will continue to be a challenge with over twenty-six operators inside the United States trying to organize funding, deployment, policies, and cell phone capabilities. We need to create a new culture of informed citizen responders who are ready and willing to use smartphones and social media tools during an emergency to keep urgent information flowing during the most critical of times.

HSNW: Looking ahead, what do you foresee as the main challenges for first responders over the next decade?

CR: I have mentioned this before and will say again, it is irresponsible for people to think that, during a major event, help is going to arrive in an immediate fashion. The local agencies that serve the public are severely under-staffed, subject to shrinking budgets, and not equipped for the types of events that we have seen across the country over the past several years. At the state and federal levels, once resources are requested and approved, assets take a minimum of seventy-two hours, and in some cases days, to reach affected areas. Agencies are often managing multiple events, and they too have limitations.

In the future, first responders will be pressed to keep up with emerging technologies and will need the means to acquire them, due to simple economics. The basics of what they do will not change, but how they communicate with each other and the public will change, often dramatically.

The main challenge for first responders and citizens will be to keep up with technology and public practices of using the technologies. But aspirations to have first responders keep up with the fast pace of technology are severely limited without funding mechanisms beyond annual grant cycles. The key to moderate success will be persistence, the progressive “outside the box” thinking by emergency managers who provide relevant and public-embracing solutions to pave the way for better emergency communications through the next decade.