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preparation for any form of large-scale calamity, natural or man-made, is an issue of great public health concern.
Many of us cannot even imagine the kinds of disasters that unfold all too frequently
Regardless of whether it was the victims, the authorities, or a combination, who were caught off guard in these tragedies, such events caused public health experts to become alert to and discuss about better ways of avoiding and mitigating disasters in the United States.
Communication technology plays an integral part during and after crisis situations.
Events such as pandemic flu, terrorist attack, flood, fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters require that the people directly affected be able to be in touch with those who are trying to help them, thus effective and efficient communication tools are crucial.
A major and recent innovation that profoundly affects disaster preparedness and response communication is the cellular phone.
Cellular phones have been available in the United States for several decades now, but as with any product cell phones took time to reach saturation level among the population. However, that American society is now thoroughly saturated with mobile cellular technology is a definite fact (Rosen, 2004). Though certain population segments may be less likely to own or savvy in using cell phone technology, the majority of the adult, and much of the non-adult, population owns at least one cell phone (Houser, Thorton, and King, 2002).
This communication trend has paved the way for highly innovative new modes of disaster planning, response, and documentation, both on the part of public health and emergency professionals and disaster victims themselves.
Cell phones serve many documented and potential functions in terms of disaster preparedness and response and community based health reporting (Freifeld et.al 2010). Perhaps most obviously, they allow authorities, responders, and potential victims to communicate with one another in terms of verbally coordinating data, disaster warnings, and response efforts.
But as cell phone technology has advanced, these mobile communication devices can serve victims and others alike as sources of information in other formats, such as online information, email, SMS and picture messaging, and apps that can be downloaded, monitored, and updated to convey educational information, collect and calculate vital signs, and so forth.
The CDC (2008), classifies emergencies into four groups that includes environmental, infectious/diseases, terrorists threats, and occupational. The role of CDC in emergency preparedness is based on public health threats, ranges from natural, biological, chemical, and radiological, to nuclear incidents (CDC, 2008). In case of disaster occurrence, CDC responds as well as supports national, state, and local partners to reduce the impact of disaster and suffering. Further, CDC also helps these partners recover and restore public health functions after the initial response. Another agency involved in the United States that involves in emergency preparedness is Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA became part of Department of Homeland Security and works in close partnership with federal, state, local, tribal, non-governmental, for profit, faith based, and public sectors (FEMA, n.d.).
Both of these agencies have used internet as a source of reaching communities, the agencies website contains numerous information about how to plan and prepare for emergencies. Further, the websites also contains informational guidelines for buildings structures in zones that are prone to natural calamities. The websites are easily accessible to public at any time.
As these agencies have strived to develop flexible emergency notification and response systems and to study how people truly act when disaster strikes, technologies such as cellular phones have been incorporated into disaster planning.
Cell phones serve as valuable communication tools in disaster situations in other non-verbal and indirect ways. Cell phone GPS signals can be used to locate victims even if they are unable to call for help. With the boom of internet, the mode of communication has changed from old traditional ways; now it is instant. During a crisis cell phone services could be down or interrupted in such instances internet could be a reliable source of gathering and disseminating information between potential victims and rescue teams as well as family members.
As the internet works separately from the phone network, many people can be able to communicate during emergency using social network sites such as twitter and face book so forth. In addition, “Internet Phone Services”, or apps, such as Skype, Fring, or Viber are extremely helpful to get instant help during crisis.
In another example of GIS use of cell phone technology for public health preparedness and response, Gumasay and Shahin (2009) report on the use of cell phones in discovering and responding to forest fires. In the application of wildfire management GIS is the most appropriate tool, because of the spatial behavior of date. Further, when GIS is used with internet, it allows users to access geographic data through internet and to perform applications on geographic data. The Internet GIS take advantage of the Internet and its associated protocols such as World Wide Web (WWW) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP), such use of internet and GIS is useful to locate and predict wildfires (Gumasay and Shahin 2009).
These tools can be accessed via cellular phone and additional information can be uploaded to the applications using the same method. This allows firefighters to keep better track of the size and location of forest fires, and other people can report forest fires in a more timely and effective manner (Gumasay and Shahin, 2009).
In one such example, cell phones played an important role during the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. In this massive earthquake more than 230,000 people died, and some of Haiti’s most populous areas suffered mass destruction. According to Heinzelman and Waters (2010), one way cell phones aided in the emergency response was through their use in tracking real-time information coming into rescue agencies. Initially, the Haiti relief effort had relied on an internal communication system that did not allow for this real-time component nor for GIS mapping; however, responders quickly upgraded to a new system known as Ushahidi. Ushahidi allowed victims to send in messages for help by accessing social media (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) and text messaging, which mapped the origin of the calls onto a map and allowed rescue workers to directly target their relief efforts.
In addressing another aspect of disaster relief, cell phones have also turned out to be a very effective method of collecting donations for disaster relief efforts. The Haiti earthquake response was the first time that the Red Cross utilized donations via text message for collecting funds in response to a disaster (Adelman, 2011). The results, in this case, were astounding: “…SMS [text messaging] technology, which allowed the Red Cross to raise an unprecedented $32 million in $10 donations sent via text message” (p. 89). The ease of donating via text message encouraged people to give to the relief effort; this is a profound method for eliciting public support in disaster response that is sure to be employed in future response to disasters.
For example, it was evident in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes in Japan on March 14, 2011, where Google created a Person-Finder page where people could go if they were looking for someone or if they had information on someone. The Japan page includes more than 530,000 records (Carafano, 2011). Similarly, text messages could be utilize to seek donations and help for the victims in distant part of the globe. During Japanese earthquake the American Red Cross society collected donations from people from around the United States for victims of the Japanese earthquake via text messages, and people were able to follow the unfolding of the earthquake and tsunami in real time using Twitter hashtags #prayforjapan, #japanquake, #tsunami and #japan (Carafano, 2011). Therefore, in times of disaster, a well-organized social media program can prove vitally important. An earthquake or tornado might cause a power outage, as a result people without battery-operated radios can be cut off from the news, and social media tools and text messages might be the only way to communicate. FEMA uses social media for communication not just from the agency to the public, but the other way around as well (FEMA, n.d.). People have sent many tweets to FEMA about disasters such as roads that have washed out in a storm, or posted YouTube videos about dangerous situations. By doing so, we can aware government agencies about the disaster, if they cannot respond to every post; it is an effective way of alerting our communities and neighborhood of what is happening around them.
In case of communication breakdowns between potentials victims and rescue team could have dire consequences including increased causalities or death. In addition, communication barriers results in fear, anxiety, frustration, or even loss of control among potential victims.
During the winter of 2011, some parts of Northeastern America were hit by debilitating blizzards that forced virtually all public transportation, basic services, and movement by private vehicle or foot to come to a standstill. Ambulance services were delayed, buses did not run, electricity frequently went out, and the amount of snow was so overwhelming that even the equipment designed to clear the streets became stuck (Gregory, 2010). Different cities reported different citizen responses to this breakdown of city life; one of the most interesting, which includes the use of social media accessible by cell phone, was that of Newark, N.J. While most mention of the use of cell phone and social media in the context of the blizzard is in terms of how people entertained themselves by complaining online, things in Newark took a more progressive turn. When the snow hit, tech savvy Newarkians, often left without electricity, nonetheless swarmed onto Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s Twitter account, using whatever technology, including cell phones, was available to do so. Citizens posted requests for help, ranging from the need for diapers to reports of the location of abandoned, snowed-in public vehicles (Gregory, 2010). Mayor Booker personally responded in many cases, delivering the diapers, and in other cases the social media tool allowed able-bodied citizens to assist in the relief effort by knowing where to go and who to check on, such as elderly persons and the snowed in vehicles (Gregory, 2010). According to Gregory (2010) “Booker turned the microblogging site into a public-service tool.”
At the same time mayor Booker was delivering diapers in response to Tweets in the New Jersey, Mayor Bloomberg of New York used Twitter to offer “important news updates: a number to call for blood donations, for example, and statistics to ease frustrated New Yorkers” (Gregory, 2010). This further supports the use of Twitters as a multifaceted communication tool in emergency response. It can be used for citizens-reporting, and citizen-response, official communication with the public.
Many government agencies are also using social media, accessible by cell phones and computers, to reach communities and get the word out about emergency preparedness, which targets behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of various groups and individuals (CDC, 2008).
According to the World Health Organization, “Timely, accessible and credible health information is critical for improving public health outcomes, whether to help people take action during an outbreak or to prevent illness” (McNab, 2009, p. 566).
Social media was used to make information available to the public as a calming, communication measure during the H1N1 crisis (Freifield et al.). Social media such as Facebook and Twitter about vaccine clinics during the H1N1 outbreak was used to push out information on flu clinics in state and local levels (Pan and Chou, 2011). For such clinics, the state and local public health departments used not just the location of clinics, but news that there was no wait for vaccines encouraged more people to get vaccinated.
Institutions such as universities, colleges, hospitals, military bases and so forth are also frequently using emergency notification alert systems to keep large numbers of people informed in the event of an emergency. These notifications systems might include telephone, television and, increasingly, social media (Freifield et al., 2010).
Social media was used to track the spread of the illness by amalgamating messages posted to the internet from cell phones and other sources through software known as Health-Map (c ). According to McNab (2009) “Health – Map is an openly available public health intelligence system that uses date from desperate sources to produce a global view of ongoing infectious disease threats” (p.544). Public health practitioners see a bright and expanding future role of social media and cell phone technology in epidemiology:
Eventually, mobile-phone technology, enabled by global positioning systems and coupled with short-message-service messaging (texting) and “microblogging” (with Twitter), might also come into play. For instance, an organization called Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters (InSTEDD) has developed open-source technology to permit seamless cross-border communication between mobile devices for early warning and response in resource-constrained settings (p.2156).
Despite their popularity, social media tools can have their limitations. One of an important limitation of using the social media to create awareness and preparedness among communities includes authenticity of the message. If the information contains complex messages, discrepancies, and useless information then it might be difficult to reach priority populations. In such, instances, traditional methods of communication such as television, radio, and newspapers become mode of communication.
Communicating via text message is also helpful before and after the crisis. But, in case of preparedness drills, limiting text messages is important, because some users have to pay for them and because they want the messages to be taken seriously.
Schoenharl et al. (2006) states that in the event of an emergency, most people turn to television for information; still social media is another tool in the arsenal of the public health and disaster preparedness and response community. With the varying range of technological preferences among individuals (Aoki & Downes, 2003; Mynatt et al., 2004), it is possible that cell phones and social media will be more applicable to emergency response in some groups than in others.
Nonetheless, cell phone technology is most likely to become a keystone aspect of emergency response and preparedness. Given that cell phone technology now allows users to access the internet and social media using a separate system than is utilized for phone calls, cell phone technology can be useful even if phone “lines” are down. It will remain important, however, not to alienate older citizens or those without cell phones by relying entirely upon cell phone-based emergency response systems. Cell phone-based emergency response systems will need to be integrated with other systems to target all members of society.
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