SMS in HurricaneWe’re now in the midst of hurricane season, which runs from the beginning of June through the end of November and is strongest from August through October. So far this year there have been two hurricanes and four other storms that were strong enough to be named–the latest being the deadly Hurricane Felix that hit Honduras and Nicaragua. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts there will have been 13 to 16 named storms, seven to nine of them hurricanes, by the end of the season. So now is a good time to reiterate why SMS is the ideal technology for communication during these devastating storms.

When people use cell phones to try to reach loved ones during a catastrophe, SMS works when voice calls do not. That’s because text messages take up a lot less bandwidth than phone calls–they travel as small packets of data on a wireless carrier’s control channel, rather on voice channels. Because text messages are in the control channel, they’re not affected by busy traffic and other problems. SMS’s triumph over other forms of communication during emergencies has been proven thanks to two hurricanes–Katrina in 2005 and Felix, which just days ago ploughed through Central America.

While it’s too early to detail how SMS helped those who lived through Felix, one interesting anecdote has already surfaced. A reporter for the Fox 2 TV news in St. Louis, Missouri was in Honduras on vacation when Felix started making its way there. The reporter’s bosses were able to reach her only once via cell phone. The rest of the time she spent in Honduras, before she made her way back to St. Louis, she kept in touch with the station via SMS (see the TV station’s report).

Katrina, the storm that destroyed New Orleans and other Gulf towns, offers more compelling examples of SMS superiority. Recently a spokesperson for CellularSouth, a southeastern U.S. service provider, told the Mississippi newspaper Hattiesburg American, “We never actually ever went down. We had people texting in attics” (read the news report). The government-IT news site reported that Tulane University officials turned to texting as a last measure after voice communications and the school’s email were both shut down during Katrina. “SMS… allowed us to stay in communication,” former Tulane CIO John Lawson told the site. The FCW report also recalls how a U.S. Coast Guard captain texted his wife, letting her know he was not involved in a helicopter crash, while he was helping to rescue Katrina victims (read FCW’s full story.)

Because SMS is a proven emergency communications technology, it is being integrated into public safety systems. Recently the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana declared a emergency response outreach new system of notify its citizens via text message as well as more traditional methods. Said Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holden in a news release, “New technology brings new ways to assure that every citizen is notified when an emergency occurs.” We’ve also written about SMS in this regard. Last spring’s Virginia Tech killings showed how a system like mobileStorm’s STAT can efficiently send out emergency notifications (read the blog article). And the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia helped prompt disaster warning systems that utilize SMS (see this post).

No doubt everyone affected by a deadly tropical storm will want to use SMS, from stranded individuals and those who want to let their families/friends/coworkers know they’re OK, to government and institution officials who need to communicate with denizens. It’s the best way to get the word out regarding hurricane news both personal and public.