Disaster response agencies need to go mobile, FEMA administrator says
- By Alice Lipowicz
- May 09, 2011
Emergency response agencies should expand their use of mobile platforms to be better prepared for the next disaster, said the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Several factors are contributing to the usefulness of mobile tools for emergency response, said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate at a Senate hearing May 5. Those factors include widespread use of mobile phones, the high likelihood that survivors will have access to mobile phones during and immediately after a crisis, and the relative resilience of cell phone networks in disaster areas.
For example, after the massive earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, there were widespread power outages, but wireless networks rebounded relatively quickly, Fugate said. A number of survivors trapped in rubble sent text messages to broadcast their locations to rescuers, he added.
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FEMA has set up a Web page to interact with mobile users, and Fugate
encouraged other federal, state and local emergency response agencies to
do the same. FEMA’s mobile website allows smart phone users to access
localized information about disasters in their areas.
Fugate said more work needs to be done to let people know where and how
they can get information during a crisis. For example, local government
agencies could compile lists of emergency shelters and evacuation routes
and make them readily available to mobile users, he said.
“We are living in a mobile environment,” Fugate told the Senate Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Disaster Recovery and
Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee. “We need to develop the data to
support citizens [using mobile phones] rather than making them fit the
Nevertheless, Fugate pointed out that mobile applications are still in
the development stages and are not yet linked to 911 emergency
communication systems. In the United States, emergency text messages
sent to 911 numbers typically are not received by emergency operators
because the systems are not designed to handle them, he added.
FEMA is also using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to communicate during
disasters and interact with other emergency managers and the public.
FEMA has 16 Twitter accounts, including a main account and Fugate’s
account — @CraigatFEMA — which he uses to communicate with emergency
“I do my own tweets,” Fugate said. “They are not about me but about the
community of peers and practitioners. With Twitter, we are helping to
build a community.”
For specific disasters, the Twitter hashtags are helpful in linking
tweets from multiple sources, he added. For example, during the recent
earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, tweets on those topics
could be searched by using the #Japan hashtag, among others.
FEMA is adopting widely used social media technologies for emergency
response rather than promoting government-owned channels, which tend to
be more cumbersome and less technologically advanced due to the
bureaucratic nature of the government, Fugate said. Companies such as
Google, Facebook and Twitter can make better tools, he added.
“Our role is to keep up, not fall back into what I call ‘innovation at the speed of government,’ ” Fugate said.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.