Strengthen Your Disaster Response Efforts With SMS

Three weeks ago, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, killing 7,000 people and displacing millions. Homes were leveled, monuments were reduced to rubble, and a people were shaken.

In the hours that followed, aid organizations rushed into action, mobilizing medical personnel and rescue workers in response to the crisis. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders and global Red Cross societies organized search and rescue efforts, tended to the wounded and distributed supplies.

Then, a second earthquake hit.

Across the world, countries have put forth millions of dollars in aid,  with the U.S. alone pledging $26 million. On a smaller scale, global citizens have made donations of their own, whether online, over the phone or through text messaging. But in the wake of a disaster, it’s important not only to only to have donations set up—it’s important to have communications as well.

How to communicate in a disaster

text responseIn the aftermath of a disaster, people are trying to find loved ones, shelter, and food and water. In the United States, FEMA sends out Wireless Emergency Alerts when disasters strike. These messages detail actions residents in afflicted areas should take, as well as the agency sending the message. Residents can also text the short code 43362 (4FEMA) with the keyword SHELTER and their zip code to find shelter near them.

You might be asking why texting and not, say, a mobile app. One reason is that a lot more people use feature phones than smartphones in developing nations. Take the United States and Nepal, for instance. Mobile phone penetration is about 80% in the United States, with about 64% penetration for smartphones. In contrast, mobile phone penetration is at 79% in Nepal, but is only at about 20% for smartphones.

This isn’t to say that mobile apps and the Internet aren’t valuable post-crisis, but in Nepal, when links aren’t going through and the Internet is slow, text might be the only option. Case in point: after the earthquake, Google deployed its Person Finder tool, where global citizens could search for a missing person with SMS (shown here with the US search phone number).

text response2Google had experience from past disasters like the Boston bombing and the earthquake/nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Similarly, the U.S. government has also been more prepared with disaster communications. After Hurricane Katrina, major carriers mobilized portable cell towers and made necessary repairs. In addition, today’s relief workers do have smartphones, which become tools to make things happen when communication is at its peak.

So what’s the most effective way to communicate in a disaster? According to the FCC, many times text messages will go through when calls won’t, a sentiment FEMA echoes. After the Boston bombing, carriers urged customers to use texting because they take up less bandwidth than voice. Text is not only a highly used channel–it’s also the only one that might get through.

Preparing for the worst

Google and American Red Cross are big organizations, so they’re able to rapidly deploy preexisting communication solutions. However, not all organizations have a communication solution in place, and they need to get one up and running quickly. And sometimes the magnitude of the disaster might wipe out the wireless network or cell towers.

That’s why it’s important to have a solution in place beforehand, if possible. Solutions like OneReach can be deployed in under an hour, and in the midst of a disaster, every second counts. Whatever platform you do use, make sure you have the right kind of number. Short codes can send more messages per minute than long codes, but they typically take three months to provision, so plan ahead.

The next step is activating the flow before the disaster hits. This way, you can get people the answers they need even if your Internet connection goes down, because the phone number is stored in the cloud. If communications are restored after a disaster, you can then create additional outbound flows for people to engage with. One best practice is to get people to opt-in to updates and disaster notifications beforehand, instead of having to rely on inbound numbers that might get overwhelmed (or maybe not even seen at all).

But it’s not enough to get your message out—it’s important for people to read it, especially after a disaster. Text has a 98% open rate, so if an organization needs to get an important message out, there’s no better channel to use for maximum exposure. However, sometimes people want more information than an outbound alert provides, and sometimes the network bandwidth is overwhelmed. That’s why it’s so essential to create two-way text communication flows, to get people the answers they need as soon as possible.

However, text messaging won’t always be enough, as some citizens will want to call. You may not be able to answer everything, which is where automation comes in. If people contact you with the same question, you can create automated flows so people can get the answers they need via text while leaving space for more pressing calls. Questions about shelter, food and water, people–all of those can be managed through an automated voice or text flow that directs people to different questions based on their input.

If residents do need more specific information, they can also talk to an agent over text chat. The important part is that people are able to get their questions answered.

Conclusion

In the wake of a disaster, information can be as vital as food and water. By enabling a text solution before, during and after disaster strikes, organizations can get people the information they need on a reliable channel. And after your world gets shaken, having something you can count on is everything.

Want to be a part of the relief effort in Nepal? Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund. Every contribution counts!

To learn more about adding text to your organization, download our whitepaper here.

Photo from DFID- the UK Department for International Development.

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