SMS does SOS

Short Message Service earns valued role as a link of last resort for crisis communications

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Joseph Castillo couldn’t shake a nagging thought while in a post-Hurricane Katrina meeting. News accounts of a downed orange helicopter would cause his wife to fear the worst. Hastily, he composed a text message — no more than the 160 characters possible in a Short Message Service (SMS) exchange between cell phones. Relieved that his family knew he was alive, Castillo returned to the business of coordinating airlifts for stranded hurricane victims.

Serendipitously, SMS proved during Katrina that teenagers desperate to stay in constant contact with classmates where not the only users of the technology.

Coast Guard officials used the technology to direct life-saving helicopter rescues. Gulf Coast ambulance drivers used cell phones and pagers to send text messages to area hospitals about the status of incoming patients.

When disaster strikes, SMS has a major advantage over cellular voice calls and wireless e-mail devices. Text messages do not rely on voice channels for transmission, and they don’t piggyback on enterprise e-mail servers. Instead, SMS messages travel as small packets of data on a wireless carrier’s control channel, the same portion of the spectrum that keeps a cellular network apprised of a particular phone’s location and status.

Because SMS messages are isolated in the control channel and are often unfazed by heavy traffic or adverse conditions that can overwhelm wireless networks, text messages can get through when most other methods of communication fail. Hence, some government officials are beginning to build SMS use into disaster planning exercises.

“During Hurricane Katrina, we used SMS to get people to where we needed them to be,” Castillo said. “Now we are including use of the technology not only in our hurricane planning but in all of our disaster plans.”

In addition, Castillo realizes that this simple communication tool can make a major difference for any government employee faced with the personal and logistical issues involved in functioning in the immediate aftershocks of disaster.

“My wife knew I was flying in a lot of helicopters, and there was no way to assuage her” fears, he said. “Often in a crisis, several hours can pass with no way to let others know that your cell phone is working.”

Because SMS is often reliable in the wake of disasters when other communications fail, officials at agencies or departments not on the front lines of disaster recovery may find themselves and their employees turning to text messaging, should worst-case scenarios materialize.

“We can extrapolate from the number of consumer users that even if this is not a blessed mode of communication, it is now one that people are aware of,” said Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It also seems to be one they can rely on during times of emergency.”

Still, most emergency response officials seem ready to give SMS an official place in disaster drills at this point. “SMS is most valuable because of the ability to receive simple text messages identifying the nature of the event,” said Thomas Newell, facilities engineer at Michigan State Police’s Emergency Management Division. “It is also a quick way to get information out to many responders.”

Michigan’s use of SMS is blended with extensive reliance on an enterprisewide communication software platform designed to blast notifications to frontline responders and enable two-way communication through the State Emergency Operations Center. The effort includes use of text-enabled pagers and wireless devices such as Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, which depend on Michigan’s Simple Mail Transfer Protocol e-mail gateway.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also looking at formalizing the use of SMS in crisis situations. “Currently, FEMA does not employ the use of SMS technology within the enterprise. As with a large number of federal agencies, FEMA uses BlackBerry wireless devices as the primary form of mobile communications,” said Barry West, FEMA’s chief information officer. “But we are currently evaluating SMS messaging as an alternate means of communication in the event the exchange servers or network is unavailable.”

Despite anecdotal reports of SMS dependability during disasters, some government officials do not consider this consumer-centric technology suitable for official deployment.

“We do not feel SMS is a viable communications vehicle. Therefore, we have not deployed the technology,” said Otto Doll, CIO and commissioner at South Dakota’s Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.

Accidental medium Most people discovered SMS reliability in times of crisis by accident. “We had not originally planned to use SMS as a primary means of communication,” said John Lawson, former CIO at Tulane University. “Essentially, we just thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll just try to send a text message,’ upon finding that we could not make voice calls or send e-mails.”

When Katrina’s wrath kicked into full gear, Tulane was evacuated except for the university’s president, chief financial officer and a skeleton support staff. Voice communication failed just as Lawson and others decided to end e-mail service and close Tulane’s data center entirely. “That’s why SMS proved so valuable. It allowed us to stay in communication with those still there,” he said.

Tulane’s executive staff relied on SMS mostly to relay logistical messages — a core strength of the technology, because text messages are severely limited in length. “Most of the messages I recall were vital in nature. Mostly, they were about how to get the president and the rest of the team out,” Lawson said.

Tulane officials who remained at the university managed to use SMS to feed information to the university’s already evacuated public relations employees, who then took this information and composed messages of reassurance to worried parents and others.

“We wanted to make sure students, faculty, parents and all of our constituents were aware of what was going on at the school,” Lawson said. “So we were posting messages on our Web site based on SMS messages we were getting from the president. However, it was difficult because of the compressed length of the message and our realization that it was important to capture the essence of what he wanted to say.”

Text messaging excels in situations that require the briefest of updates.

“SMS addresses the need to transmit specific and actionable data, such as damage assessments, medical updates and continuity-of-operations plans,” said Matt Foosaner, director of Sprint Nextel’s Emergency Response Team.

Another SMS feature that becomes powerful during disasters is the fact that the messages will sit in a queue if not sent immediately. “Because of this, you have a better chance of getting through than you do with voice calls, simply because you don’t have to keep manually redialing,” Golvin said. “The network will continue to attempt to make the connection.”

SMS also proves its practicality in times of disaster, because it is a minimalist technology. “SMS strengths include simplicity,” said Bruce Deer, president of paging giant SkyTel, which outfitted a New Orleans ambulance company that used SMS to communicate with hospitals. “Support of these networks is lower due to smaller logistical needs, such as less fuel for generators and more coverage area per transmission site.”

McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

4 tips for making the most of text messaging

Incorporating the use of Short Message Service communications in disaster planning doesn’t always require massive cellular phone purchases. Here are some tips for making the most of mobile communications devices you already have on hand.

1. Assemble a list of cell phone numbers for critical personnel so employees can send text messages during emergencies.

2. Encourage workers to become comfortable with text messaging, which can be cumbersome and frustrating, especially for older employees.

3. Establish communications relay teams in which individuals practice using SMS to organize others.

4. Develop a series of standard messages and responses that can make logistics and coordination faster and easier during crises.

— Jennifer McAdams

BlackBerry’s back channel

It’s possible that a crisis could render useless mobile devices such as Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, the handheld electronic messaging system that relies on data center-bound e-mail servers that a disaster could disable.

Therefore, RIM has introduced a new feature for its devices called PIN-to-PIN messaging. It allows one BlackBerry user to exchange messages with another by using the personal identification number of the other device as an address instead of the recipient’s e-mail address, bypassing the e-mail gateway.

“Like SMS, PIN-to-PIN works on the packet side of the network,” said Alan Panezic, director of RIM’s BlackBerry Solutions Group.

Panezic said that RIM developed the PIN-to-PIN capability in response to government requests for a more secure way to communicate in crisis situations if critical enterprise servers are down. “This has been very much a concerted effort for us, especially in the federal space, where departments want to get very organized and be able to communicate quickly during disasters,” Panezic said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is one of the agencies exploring the use of PIN-to-PIN communications, said Barry West, FEMA’s chief information officer.

NASA officials have also expressed interest.

— Jennifer McAdams

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