S.O.S via SMS 1
Hurricane Katrina changed the way that organizations deal with crises, because
traditional methods of technology unexpectedly failed to work. Text messaging or
SMS—short message service—emerged as a successful means of keeping people
aware of what was happening. Text messaging has yet to be explored as a viable
communicative practice during crises. The students enrolled in a crisis management
class created a research project to answer these questions: What is text messaging or
SMS? Who would likely use SMS during a hurricane crisis and how? For what
purposes? What are the best practices for using text messaging? The end result of
their efforts captures the next wave of communicative practices in crisis management.
S.O.S via SMS 2
S.O.S. via SMS:
Text Messaging as a Communication Strategy in Hurricane Crises
When the call for papers in the Southern Communication Journal was posted, I
was teaching an upper level undergraduate course in Crisis Management at Ithaca
College in New York. Two of the students enrolled were displaced from Tulane
University because of Hurricane Katrina. Their personal experiences in conjunction with
the way that the crisis was handled were central topics of conversation in the class. As the
professor, I offered the students an opportunity to continue with the course syllabus, or to
answer the call in the journal. After a week’s deliberation, the students unanimously
expressed support for designing and conducting a research project and submitting a
manuscript for publication.
The twenty students enrolled in the course were assigned to 5 groups, each of
which was responsible for a specific part of the research process: literature review,
theoretical framework, Human Subjects Review Board (HSRB) application, data
collection, and data analysis. The first question was “What should we research?” To
determine the focus of their project, a brainstorming session was conducted and yielded
their desired topic: text messaging and its uses during Hurricane Katrina. This topic was
narrowed further with the help of the literature review group to text messaging within
crisis management plans (CMP) at three universities directly affected by the hurricane
and one indirectly affected. The goal was to compare the four universities to Ithaca
College. This comparison was based on a model of technology that the theoretical
framework group created.
S.O.S via SMS 3
Next, the question raised was “How do we go about researching this topic?” The
general preference was to conduct qualitative research by interviewing the presidents and
members of crisis teams at the universities. In order to do this, the HSRB group filled out
the application and was approved. The data collection group then coordinated and
conducted 13 interviews using a teleconference phone. All interviews were tape-recorded
and transcribed. The data analysis group then examined the crisis plans from each
university and the transcripts from the interviews using the technology model created.
For this manuscript to be completed, one member of each group was designated
as a leader. The leaders were responsible for writing the manuscript. My role as the
professor was only to provide guidance and support. What follows in the rest of the paper
is a description of the model and what the students learned in the process about text
messaging, crises, and hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina: How It Changed Crisis Plans
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most socially and economically damaging
hurricanes in American history; not to mention one of the deadliest as well. It was the
sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane and the third-strongest U.S. hurricane on record to
make land fall. The Hurricane hit in late August of 2005, devastating much of the north-
central Gulf Coast of the United States. Katrina took the lives of 1,836 or more, making
it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928.
Moreover, Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for many organizations, colleges
and university in their planning for crises, according to Lipka (2005):
Many institutions simulate crises, running exercises to test their
emergency systems and spot weaknesses in their plans. With Hurricane
S.O.S via SMS 4
Katrina as a live example of disaster response, officials at undamaged
institutions have been watching closely — even as they offer various types
of aid — to see how affected colleges' plans are holding up and to identify
areas where their own plans could be strengthened (p. A29).
Results of crisis situations like Hurricane Katrina and September 11th have made
the importance of having a crisis management plan apparent to higher education
administrators. In his article, Surviving a Crisis, in American School and University,
Mike Kennedy (1999) states that colleges and universities are typically more complex
systems because they are not only responsible for the classroom but residence halls,
medical facilities, research laboratories, and sports arenas as well. In the same respect,
colleges and universities are often the focal point of a city. Thus, any crisis or emergency
situation that occurs on a college campus also affects the surrounding community.
Because of their complex nature, Kennedy (1999) suggests that planning for any type of
crisis that occurs, even if it is merely brief consideration, will be beneficial.
In August 1990, five students were slain at the University of Florida. At that time,
the university was not equipped with a crisis plan to deal with this type of issue. This
incident led to the drafting of a plan for this crisis as well as a variety of others. Despite
this tragedy, the crisis led to many positive improvements such as increased lighting and
more police patrol. Every year since the deaths, the University of Florida reviews their
crisis plans to determine if there is anything that has occurred over the past year that was
not covered in the original plan and makes necessary adjustments. “You need to tailor
your plan to your institution. You can’t predict. Stuff happens all the time. You’d better
S.O.S via SMS 5
be prepared to deal with it,” said Linda Gray Vice President and director of news and
public affairs at the University of Florida (originally cited in Kennedy, 1999).
Introduction to the Crisis Technology Model (CTM)
A Crisis Technology Model was developed in response to the research gathered
on the use of technology during crises and the role of technology in creating crisis
management plans. This model categorizes five different levels of technology that can be
divided into three layers. The higher the level of technology an organization has reached,
the better equipped they are for communication. In other words, if an organization, such
as a university, has identified the importance of all levels of the model, they are better
prepared and more flexible in the process of managing a crisis. In our model the top level
of communication is text messaging and short messaging systems (SMS). Once a
university has incorporated these top levels of communication into their crisis plans, the
members of the organization will be better prepared in the event of a crisis.
An organization also needs to take employee training into consideration if it plans
to implement text messaging into its crisis plan. If employees understand the
technologies and are able to use them, they will be able to work more efficiently during a
crisis situation. Furthermore, the more new media tactics the organization uses to engage
publics in provocative decisions before, during, and after a crisis, the more effective two-
way interaction is between the organization and its public. New media pertains to direct
communication, instead of indirect communication, such as television, radio, or other
types of mass media.
The model also supports the idea that the greater use of multiple technological
resources in crisis situations, the greater the opportunity for necessary information to
S.O.S via SMS 6
reach the primary affected public. Having a broader understanding of the technologies
allows for the universities’ crisis management teams to better react in a crisis situation.
In order to comprehend the model, the university needs to first have a basic
understanding of what each layer entails.
The first layer of the CTM is based on the two lowest, most traditional levels of
communication. Television, radio, and external press releases make up level five, the
lowest level of the model. The second level within this layer includes e-mail, web blogs,
and internal news release. These tools do not guarantee a quick response, and a computer
with internet connection is required. Layer two is composed of technologies in levels
two and three; instant messaging cellular phone calling. Although these are more direct
forms of communication, crisis victims may still experience problems caused by power-
outages or the overcrowding of cellular airwaves. The third layer contains the highest
level of the crisis technology model, text messaging and short message systems (SMS).
In the event of a crisis, most specifically a situation like Hurricane Katrina, we
have found through our research that flexibility is of utmost importance. Having a crisis
management plan in place is a great way to handle a crisis, but you cannot always predict
what is going to happen, according to the President of Ithaca College. Therefore, what
our model provides is the ability to pass through layers in order to reach the most
effective source of communication. Based on one’s natural reaction, it is his or her
responsibility to decide the most appropriate layer of technology for any given situation.
The model suggests that there are no boundaries between layers, and that although
different levels of technology exist, certain crisis situations require a more advanced form
of communication, rather than the traditional means of indirect, mass communication.
S.O.S via SMS 7
Therefore, we have identified more direct means of communication in layer two, such as
instant messaging and cell phones, which are advancing every day. Both tools have
proven to be extremely important forms of communication in our every day lives.
However, problems regarding layer two still exist, and result in the “organic”
development of the third layer1. Layer three was used as a last resort when cell providers
were unable to permit the millions of phone calls being placed during the Hurricane
Katrina crisis. Figure 1.1 visually represents this model as an escalator, portraying the
layers of communication in order of significance.
The term organic was coined by an interviewee who is employed in a department of Risk Management.
S.O.S via SMS 9
Practices, technologies, and tools that are used in crisis communication have been
categorized into three layers and applied to CMPs for natural disasters, such as Hurricane
Katrina. Throughout our interviews with various university personnel who were highly
involved in the formation of their respected crisis communications plans, we conclude
that universities have implemented and used these communication tools to communicate
their crisis plan before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Common communicative practices in this layer consist of: press releases,
TV/Radio broadcasts, flyers distributed over campus, and megaphone announcements.
Press releases can be printed and distributed as a hard copy, published on the main web
site of the university, or sent via e-mail. The technology used to make massive audio
announcements by megaphone and speakerphone is utilized by Ithaca College, through
placement of speakerphones on campus safety patrol vehicles. Loyola University places
speakerphones within the dormitories.
Regular e-mail systems that are used throughout the academic year can also be
used in this particular layer of communication. The Vice President of Student Affairs
and Campus Life of Ithaca College in New York stated that the college has been using
“Intercom Alerts,” which are massive e-mails that announce any kind of incident that
affects campus life. The Vice President also revealed that the college’s CMP is being
constantly updated by a small core crisis decision team.
Pasquini (2005) concedes that with most cellular and landline communications
destroyed or at least temporarily down, those still with internet access use it to
communicate with the outside world. Methods of communication include instant
S.O.S via SMS 10
messaging, VoIP (voice over internet protocol) calling, and message postings on a
company’s Web site. According to a posting on the Freepress website, WMAH, a local
television network in Mississippi, was “initially in desperate need of diesel fuel” to keep
its generator running and stay on air in order to provide news and survival information
(www.freepress.net). E-mail is a convenient and quick way for students and faculty to
access and respond to messages, and can be updated with news and survival information
in the event of a natural disaster. However, with little or no power, the internet is less
During Hurricane Katrina, one of the main technologies used to communicate
important messages was e-mail. Web interaction was essential to Loyola University’s
CMP for distributing information across a massive audience. However, when the
hurricane landed, the university lost a significant portion of their communication with
constituencies because of the power outages, according to the President of Loyola
University in New Orleans (Telephone interview, December 5th, 2006)
Layer one communicative practices and technologies are the most basic forms of
communication that can be used in any crisis, and were revealed to have been included in
all the CMPs we investigated throughout our research. Upon failure of these practices, we
suggest that crisis plans need to incorporate a second layer of practices.
The development of the second layer relied on new challenges that were faced
regarding communication tactics in layer one. The technologies discussed in layer two
include. The fact that more traditional forms of communication were not effective in
S.O.S via SMS 11
crisis situations sparked the realization that new forms of technology were needed: instant
messaging and cell phone.
These technologies encourage the use of direct communication. In the event of a
crisis, direct communication is a two-way conversation between those experiencing the
crisis and those trying to manage the crisis. Layer two technologies provide a quick
response and real-time interaction. However, instant messaging requires a computer, the
internet, and electricity. If these materials are not available, instant messaging would not
be an effective way to communicate during a crisis (Davies, 2005). As a result, this
model suggests cell phones as the next best tool for communication.
Similar to instant messaging, cellular phones provide instantaneous
communication and real-time interaction. During Hurricane Katrina, several people
resorted to cell phones as their first choice of communication. Unfortunately, the
abundance of phone calls overcrowded the airwaves, resulting in the service providers’
inability to manage every phone call. Cell phones within the Gulf Coast region became
inoperable, and therefore useless for making or receiving calls (Lipka, 2005). Potential
troubles may also arise from cell phone use during storms, such as high winds interfering
with cell towers and radio waves not transmitting calls. Thus, calling via cell phone is not
always a reliable source of communication during a crisis. Because cell phone calls were
the last form of consistent communication, crisis management teams, as well as victims,
must discover an available technology capable of maintaining communication with
We have already witnessed the improvements made in organizations through the
use of these communication technologies. Now, these technological improvements need
S.O.S via SMS 12
to be applied to crisis situations. Our model is an illustration of the best communication
practices during a crisis (Seeger, 2006). In order to complete this illustration, we must
explain the remaining layer in our communication model. The third layer incorporates
text messaging, the “organic process”2 that occurred when victims were unable to make
cell phones calls. Thus, these victims resorted to text messaging, a form of
communication that can be passed much more easily through airwaves.
After analyzing various crisis communications plans and conducting numerous
interviews with key figures within the area of crisis management, we were able to gather
information on the lack of text messaging in crisis plans. Because of this lack of effective
communication tactics, Hurricane Katrina forced many schools in the affected region to
update their crisis plans. Of the schools we investigated, most had already implemented
layers one and two of our theoretical framework.
When examining the crisis plan specifically for Loyola University, layers one and
two of the theoretical framework were exhausted due to the crisis at hand. The failure of
layers one and two had a variety of causes, such as power outages, flooding, destruction
of facilities, and system overloads.
Therefore, these schools need to implement a new form of communication, which
should be text messaging. SMS is a service provided on most digital mobile phones and
many personal computer systems as a means of sending messages between mobile
phones and other mobile communication devices. SMS stands for Short Messaging
Service, most commonly known as text-messaging. Text-messaging is often an included
feature, available without charge on most modern mobile phones. Text messaging allows
The term organic was coined by an interviewee who is employed in a department of Risk Management.
S.O.S via SMS 13
users to compose a message with a maximum of 160 characters, by typing letters using
the number keypad on their phone, and send a message to any user nationally and
internationally (Gupta, 2005). The most common form of SMS messaging is mobile to
mobile, also known as point to point messaging, which is simply sending a message from
one mobile phone to another. A user can also send a message via the Internet to a mobile
Text messages can also be sent from a cell phone to an email address.
Organizations can also use SMS to send mobile phone alerts to mass audiences (Hord,
2006). Text messaging has also become increasingly popular among the youth culture in
the United States. However, the people in the U.S. have been behind in this new
technology in comparison to many countries in Europe and Asia. A recent survey found
that 80 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 own a cell phone, and 65 percent of these cell
phone users use text messaging on a regular basis (Breed, 2006).
Benefits and drawbacks of text messaging SMS messages, according to Fawcett
of Continuity Central, are less resource intensive than mobile voice calls, so networks can
better cope with increased demand of use. This means the message has a better chance of
getting through even with an inadequate signal (Fawcett, 2006). Text messaging is often
favored in different crisis situations because it does not require continuous access to the
network, and the path by which messages travel is reserved for data only, so it is less
congested (Searcey, Ali, Latour, 2005). SMS is also part of a store and forward
mechanism, so if the receiver is not available to receive the text message, it is saved and
stored until the phone becomes available (Hord, 2006). Cingular, one of the top three
wireless phone providers will store text messages until they can be successfully delivered
S.O.S via SMS 14
and received for up to 72 hours (Ulanoff, 2004). This reliable feature allows for simple
messages to be sent quickly in a cost efficient manner to mass audiences with an
increased confidence that the message will be received.
Despite the better probability of getting through the network, there is no guarantee
that a message will be received after it is sent. This is particularly the case when a
message is being sent across networks. A user can track the receipt of the message by
requesting a confirmation and error alert. However, the receipt does not allow for the
sender to verify if the receiver has read the message or understood the information.
Another drawback of text messaging through a SMS format is the size limitation. With
only 160 characters available, an important message may not fit these constraints, thus
requiring multiple messages to be sent (Fawcett, 2006). The more messages needed, the
greater the probability that a receiver will not get a message or understand what the
messages are telling them to do. This could be critical in a crisis or emergency situation.
SMS Emergency Use
The benefits and reliability of SMS technology have led to its wide use by
organizations and individuals in emergency and crisis situations. SMS has proved to be a
successful communication tool in the event of a crisis. Because it requires fewer
resources to send and receive messages, people involved in a crisis or emergency
situation have found text-messaging a reliable way to contact loved ones and emergency
On September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks devastated New York City and
Washington D.C., cellular networks were flooded with calls which prevented many from
actually getting a hold of anyone. Text messaging proved to be the most reliable form of
S.O.S via SMS 15
communication throughout the day. However, according to Harvey Fawcett of Continuity
Central, at the time there was a low general awareness of text-messaging, which means a
stronger knowledge of text-messaging could have provided better communication
(Fawcett, 2006). Ashlee Vance, in an article in PC World Magazine (2001), reported that
employers all over the country were using text messaging and other IP-based (Internet
Protocol) systems to check on workers and loved ones on 9/11. Wireless Knowledge, a
software company with an office in New York City sent a data message to all employees
asking them to respond with their whereabouts via text message. “It was sort of a virtual
role call”, said Jeff Ross, Director of Business Development at Wireless Knowledge
(cited originally in Vance, 2001).
In June 2005, when terrorists attacked the London underground railway system,
residents were advised to use text messaging instead of placing cellular calls because
cellular and land line phone systems had been congested for over three hours. The Wall
Street Journal reported shortly after the attacks that this was an indication that British cell
phone system operators may have not learned a lesson from September 11 in the United
States in regards to telephone traffic (Searcey, Ali, Latour, 2005).
Other areas of the world are currently adapting SMS as a means of
communicating, possibly based on troubles caused by other crises. The war-torn areas of
Israel are using text messaging to warn residents of incoming missiles. Cellact, an Israeli
telecommunications company has introduced the service as a way to provide critical
information when networks are down and timely warning and distribution is crucial. Text
messaging has also been successful on much smaller scales but has saved the lives of
S.O.S via SMS 16
Most recently, in October 2006, in Memphis, Tennessee, a woman and her
children were kidnapped by the woman’s ex-boyfriend and taken away by car. The
woman was able to text message her friend using her cellular phone, and the friend
notified the police. The police were able to locate and safely free the woman and children
and arrest the kidnapper (Eyewitness News Memphis, 2006).
Organizations and governments are increasingly convinced of the benefits that
SMS and text messaging can have in emergency situations and beginning to implement
plans and infrastructure to support this form of communication. SMS is being adapted by
colleges and universities to provide emergency information. San Francisco is one of the
first cities to consider text-messaging as a part of a citywide emergency alert system. The
plan was announced on October 17, 2006 and allows residents to sign up for an alert that
will be sent to their cell phone or mobile device to notify them of an earthquake or crisis
situation. The messaging system will provide evacuation routes and information
regarding severe weather to subscribers, but will also allow these users to notify the city
of their location and any assistance they may require (Vega, 2006).
On the national level, according to The Associated Press, the Department of
Homeland Security will begin notifying Americans of impending disasters and
emergencies using cellular phone text messages by the end of 2007. This will be the first
revision to the national alert system since its inception in 1951. The current system,
which can only be initiated by the president, uses radio and television broadcast to warn
the nation of situations like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other public hazards
S.O.S via SMS 17
Previous to Hurricane Katrina, Loyola University relied heavily on web
technologies, such as e-mail systems and university websites. Other technologies such as
PA systems, TV, radio, cell phones, and electronic printing supplies were also heavily
relied on. However, because of power outages spanning over the entire New Orleans
area, they were cut off from the use of those technologies. In regards to cell phone use,
the large number of calls transmitted throughout the Gulf Coast area created a system
overload, causing cell phone calls to become useless for one week. Thus, the use of text
messaging emerged from the chaos caused by the power outages. In the chaotic situation,
structure and order naturally emerged. For instance, when the power went out during
Hurricane Katrina, university personnel resorted to text messages as an alternative form
When we interviewed Rick Bell, the director of risk management, he mentioned
how text messages were used in replacement of layers one and two of the theoretical
framework; as a result, layer three was “organically” formed to include text messaging.
The term “organic” in this instance refers to the emergence of text messaging when all
other forms planned forms of communication have failed. Through a process of
elimination, Rick Bell and other crisis team members discovered the solution of text-
messaging out of necessity. Rick Bell explained in a telephone interview that text
messaging was “one of the only ways we could talk”. Furthermore, Rick Bell noted that
cell phone communication became useless immediately because of downed towers
caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The reason why text messaging prevailed over other forms of communication was
because it had a lower bandwidth requirement than phone calls. Therefore, more text
S.O.S via SMS 18
messages were able to be sent and received compared to the phone calls made that
created the system overload.
SMS should be used as an additional form of communication for crisis
management. As of yet, Crisis communication plans are either excluding SMS or use it
as a last resort. In terms of CMP procedures, the universities studied have shown that
there is little or no knowledge of the possible uses and benefits of SMS in an emergency
The Generational Aspect of SMS
In the event of a hurricane crisis, we have learned that the use of all
communication tools is generational. SMS has not been considered as a viable
communication tool because its use is more prevalent to generation Y or all college-aged
students; a generation to young to have authority in the development of a CMP.
In the event of a crisis, as our theoretical framework proposes, the more levels of
communication that an organization uses, the better equipped they will be to
communicate during a crisis. Not only is the model beneficial in regards to
interoperability, but it also provides a variety of communication methods to better suit a
set of constituents. In the structural breakdown caused by Hurricane Katrina, our
research has shown that people use the form of communication that works and one they
are most comfortable with. Students and other constituents on university campuses
turned to SMS and text messaging.
S.O.S via SMS 19
While conducting research, it became apparent that SMS and its many uses is an
area of technology that has not been thoroughly explored due to its recent adoption by the
United States as a communication tool. Research has shown that text messaging is a
technology limited in use to certain groups with specific demographical characteristics.
Due to the fact that this project was created in the context of a crisis management
class at Ithaca College, we were limited to the time span of one academic semester. This
time constraint limited the number of colleges and universities we were able to study in
depth. With more time, we would have been able to broaden the scope of our research, as
well as include more subjects for our studies. Our findings are extensive, however not
Another limitation to our research was our location in the central New York State
region. We took into consideration that New York State is not a location prone to
hurricane weather. Generally, we lack a personal understanding of hurricane
experiences. The knowledge we gained in the process became meaningful after
conducting interviews with administrators and officials from universities in hurricane
areas. We were then able to compare these shared experiences with the information we
gathered from our initial research.
SMS is a fairly recent communication tool in the United States. While text
messaging is considered a commonplace form of communication in foreign regions, the
majority of the U.S. population is still unfamiliar with the tool. Even less is known about
the use SMS in the event of a crisis. Most recently, within the last few years,
organizations and cities are beginning to incorporate SMS based communication into
S.O.S via SMS 20
their CMPs. It is difficult to determine if SMS will continue to gain popularity and if
usage will continue to increase in the United States or if it is a communication fad and
soon be replaced by a newer more innovation tool.
Recommended for further research
In the aftermath of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the necessity for
sustainable communication systems became clear to all. Cell phones, satellite phones,
and walkie-talkie phones are useful, but only if the services are not overloaded, as they
may be in an emergency. For this reason, many service carriers and organizations have
completed considerable work to tighten their disaster recovery plans.
While completing extensive research, we recognized several subjects related to
the focus of our paper. The section below is a list of suggested topics for further in-depth
• The effectiveness of SMS technology – advantages and disadvantages
• Personal and social awareness, attitudes and perceptions towards the use
of SMS technology
• Personal communication preference/methods for communicating with
colleagues, family members and friends not only during crisis situations
but also in everyday life
• Structural improvements on both corporate and governmental levels
National carriers such as Sprint/Nextel, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Verizon, in
preparation for future disaster situations, are expanding the scope of their emergency
response teams in terms of technological security to help public-safety agencies
coordinate communications during emergencies. Moreover, Sprint/Nextel is creating a
S.O.S via SMS 21
complex backup system that combines generator technology and fuel to provide a variety
of communication tools, including satellite services and iDEN (Integrated Digital
Enhanced Network), in case of a crisis situation.
S.O.S via SMS 22
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