Mobile phones, especially smartphones, are firmly embedded in society, transforming work and social lives, making us safer in countless ways.
Public safety apps, such as the one from Auckland Civil Defence in New Zealand (p5), have been developed by safety and response organisations. SMS warnings can be one of the most effective methods of reaching many people simultaneously. In a crisis, being able to reach somebody – or not – makes the difference between relief and despair, life and death.
On p14, Erik de Soir describes how some parents found out about the coach crash in Switzerland before others, because their children had been allowed to carry cell phones. Some used mobile phones to call their children and discovered they were alive, while others endured an anguished wait for official information. In the absence of firm information about the situation aboard the Costa Concordia, Ennio Aquilino says that alerts came directly from passengers aboard the vessel (p11). During the terror attacks in Norway in 2011, emergency services used mobile phones when other systems didn’t work and children hiding on the island used text messages to communicate (p30).
But there is a danger in reliance upon these devices. Just a few weeks before the events in Norway, a serious outage affected large parts of the mobile network. This year, many countries and regions have seen widespread and lengthy failures of service, leaving users unable to access their phone, emails, internet or SMS functions. The causes of some of these outages are revealing – floods, fire and software errors.
Of course we know that in a major disaster, elements of critical infrastructure can fail. But what about those critical elements which crash before – or which simply cannot be relied upon to perform during – an emergency?
As Mike Hall points out on page 54, the rapid pace of technology can be both a blessing and a curse. We musn’t neglect the low-tech back-up solutions in case our shiny gadgets fail.
This comment was published in 2012