The TV images of a distraught father talking to his daughter trapped in a collapsed building soon after the recent Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquakes still bring chills down my spine. When the call dropped the poor man became distraught because he had not been able to get her location in order to go and save her.
Both in Christchurch and during the Queensland floods, where areas as large as France and Germany combined were inundated with water, location-based tracking of mobile devices was key in saving many lives and, sadly, also recovering bodies.
In both scenarios, Twitter and Facebook were used extensively to marshall volunteers and direct recovery efforts, but their effectiveness was totally reliant on the continuing operation of the networks.
I remember seeing cell sites on wheels (or COWS as they are affectionately called) rolling into the worst stricken areas north of Phuket straight after the tsunami hit and how they helped in recovery efforts. Telecom NZ was able to relocate five COWS to Christchurch to boost coverage in critical areas where base stations, once atop now-collapsed buildings were taken out of action. How heartening to see it working closely with its arch competitor, Vodafone, to maintain emergency services.
However, for every feel good story, comes an equal number of not-so-good stories that some of the press seems to feed on.
Verizon, for example, was asked by the FCC to explain why it dropped thousands of 911 (emergency number) calls placed over its wireless network in Maryland during a severe snowstorm in late January. The Australian press vilified some mobile operators for not building base stations on higher ground and for not having enough battery backup in place. In New Zealand the height of base stations was the issue. How can you win?
Proactive mobile operators in the Philippines, Smart, Globe and Digitel set an example recently by signing a disaster preparedness pact with the Philippines weather bureau, PAGASA, and the Philippines Disaster Recovery Foundation to help ensure closer working ties in the event of unexpected calamity.