Mobile phones save lives

Mobile phones save lives

Maarten Mes, one2many  |   June 09, 2010
Wireless Asia

The Asia-Pacific region is no stranger to large-scale disasters, and the recent past has been no exception. The 2003 SARS epidemic, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the 2009 Sumatra earthquake have taken their place in a long history of natural violence. For this reason, the Asia-Pacific region has looked at ways of minimizing the impact of these disasters, comprising two major components: early detection, and the fast and effective dissemination of information about it to the public. This article focuses on approaches to the latter.

The most enduring approach to issuing public warnings has been the alarm. Traditionally, the first thing that the public knew about a disaster was when a siren sounded. This was an effective way of alerting a large group of people in a specific area that a disaster was imminent, but that was the extent of its usefulness. A siren is a dumb system - it tells people there is danger, but not what the danger is (fire, tsunami, chemical leak etc.), nor what the appropriate course of action is.

Recently, governments across Asia have been looking at ways in which they can improve public safety warnings. This current wave of interest was sparked off by the Boxing Day Tsunami, where it became clear that many lives could have been saved if the appropriate warning systems had been in place.

A few years ago, Japan took a global lead by implementing its Earthquake Early Warning system, which broadcasts warnings to the public over both radio and television when an earthquake is expected. This allows people who have seen or heard the broadcast to take appropriate action. The key here is that they are made aware of the exact nature of the threat and so can react appropriately.

Such systems, however, are not without their faults. TV and radio will only alert people who are actively listening to a broadcast - during working hours that is a very small proportion of the total public. Even if combined with a siren the system is flawed. When hearing a siren the natural response is to evacuate whichever building you are in, or if you are outside, to stay outside. It would be counterintuitive (and potentially dangerous depending on the nature of the disaster) to go inside to watch a TV broadcast.

What is needed is a system that can immediately tell all people within a given geography, regardless of where they are or what they are doing, that a disaster is imminent, what the nature of the disaster is, and what the appropriate course of action should be.

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