“Mobile Technology’s Role in Natural Disasters and Public Safety Preparedness and Response” – Brookings Institute event

On Tuesday July 16, 2013 The Brookings Institute Center for Technology Innovation hosted a discussion on mobile technology’s developing role in role in disaster response.

The panelists included:

  • Richard Price, President – PulsePoint Foundation @PulsePoin
  • James A. Barnett Jr., Co-Chair Telecom/Cybersecurity Practice – Venable LLP
  • Suzy DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer – American Red Cross @sdefrancis
  • Anita Stewart, Senior Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Development – Sesame Workshop
  • Kristina Anderson, Co-Founder – LiveSafe @koshanderson

Moderated By:

Darrell M. West, Vice President and Director, Governance Studies, Founding Director, Center for Technology Innovation

Governments are becoming more and more prolific in using mobile technologies before, during and after a disaster strikes. It is estimated that there are 6 billion mobile phone users and governments are attempting to reach them with public safety announcements about disasters that occur; both natural and man-made. It is fast becoming a method of informing the public to take shelter, stay indoors, be on the lookout for flash-floods, and other situations where time is of the essence.

The key take away point of the event was to have redundancy plans in place that can mitigate the slowing of information to disaster responders and effected individuals, hopefully saving time and lives in the process. James Barrett noted the importance of backup generators used to power cell phone towers in Haiti after the earthquake. Although there was a large influx of calls/data being sent in the region the cell phone towers were able to help open the flow of information and communication. If the towers had been completely off, rescue and response efforts would have been less effective.

Another critical lesson was the ability to learn from mistakes and failings that were present in previous disasters and to shore up those failings for when the next disaster strikes. James Barnett stated, “At Virginia Tech we saw students who were trying to be quiet, trying to get help, texting 911 and at that time those texts went nowhere. Now we’re on the road to making sure that those can be received and handled by the 911 call centers”.  Kristina Anderson described her harrowing experience at the Virginia Tech shootings. She noted that limited information was distributed to individuals who were on the campus, which made it difficult for students and teachers to have situational awareness and protect themselves accordingly.

As critical as technology is becoming in disaster preparedness and response the speakers agreed that it is a tool that can be used and should not replace other more “traditional” forms of communication. Adding that phones are a great way to transmit information quickly to large group of people but everyone does not have cell phones and those who do not should not have to suffer because of it.


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