Disaster response agencies need to go mobile, FEMA administrator says

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said disaster response agencies should take advantage of the widespread use of mobile phones to improve their disaster communications with the public.

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.

Related stories:

FEMA puts disaster info into hands of smart-phone users

FEMA loses 7 years' worth of major official reports

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 traditional models.”

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 managers.

“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.