To text or not to text during emergencies

Some recommend sending messages via handhelds, but others say it's not reliable.

As part of National Preparedness Month, a group that promotes health and safety programs has launched an initiative to tell the public to use text messaging to communicate with friends and families immediately after an emergency or disaster before calling on the phone. But some telecommunications experts warn that might not be the best advice.

Safe America Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Marietta, Ga., kicked off its Text First, Talk Second campaign, saying texting is more efficient and during an emergency not everybody can use voice lines. "We need to become more reliant on texting," said Len Pagano, president and chief executive of the foundation.

A person who texts has an 800-to-1 better chance of sending a message to someone in an emergency than using voice communications because a short message such as "imok," for I'm OK, requires 4 bytes using standard text messaging protocols, according to data from Robert Duncan, vice chancellor for research at the University of Missouri and a member of the foundation's volunteer advisory task force.

But other telecommunication's experts said texting is not reliable during emergency situations and voice communication should be the first option, especially when calling 911. "Texting is a technology that was never designed for emergency communication," said Brian Fontes, chief executive of the National Emergency Number Association, which studies 911 policy, technology, operations and education issues.

During an emergency, receiving an immediate response is critical, and text messaging does not allow a sender to confirm if the message was received, he said.

In addition, texting during an emergency is similar to trying to enter an eight-lane superhighway from a one-lane dirt-road entrance ramp, said Patrick Traynor, an assistant professor of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "The capacity to deliver that amount of critical messages to one confined area simply doesn't exist," he added.

With a text message, a network keeps trying to deliver a message until it is received, a process that could potentially take many hours, Traynor said. A voice call is immediately received or not at all-- clear result.

Another example Traynor cited was New Year's Eve messages. Some are delivered instantly, he said, while others take hours to reach their destination. "If everyone reaches for their phone, who knows what will get through," he said.

Traynor also noted that during a suspected chemical spill on the Georgia Tech campus, the university sent via its emergency alert system a text message to students to evacuate the area where the suspected spill occurred. When school officials determined there was no emergency, they sent another message to students to return to campus. But many students received only the second message, raising undue concerns among those who had not received the first message.

An effort should be made to use voice first, however, text messaging is a nice fallback, said Robert Kenny, spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, who noted the proliferation of wireless devices in the United States.

Those who contend text messaging is preferable, argue texting uses less bandwidth and can provide voice communication lines more open for public safety agencies, said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents wireless companies. "Texting is a great thing in time of emergency," she said.