Crisis Response Journal (Volume 8, issue 2)
In the next issue of Crisis Response Journal (Volume 8, issue 2 - published this week) Emily Hough examines how reliance on now-common technology could well have created even greater vulnerability in a crisis
Mobile phones, especially smartphones, have become firmly embedded in society, transforming our work and social lives and making us safer in countless ways.
Public safety apps, such as the one from Auckland Civil Defence in New Zealand outlined in our news pages in the current issue of CRJ, have been developed by safety and response organisations. SMS warnings can be one of the most effective methods of reaching many people simultaneously in an emergency. In a crisis, being able to reach somebody - or not - can make the difference between relief and despair, life and death.
Regular readers of CRJ will know that the way social media is used in a crisis also brings invaluable assistance and reassurance to affected people or those trying to respond to the situation.
On page 14 of this issue, Erik de Soir tells of his involvement in the aftermath of the terrible school coach crash, which killed 22 Belgian schoolchildren in a Swiss tunnel. One notable feature of this incident is the fact that some parents found out about the crash before others, because their children had been allowed to carry cell phones. Some parents had used mobile phones to call their children and discovered they were alive, while others endured an anguished wait for official information.
Mobile phones proved their usefulness in the Costa Concordia shipwreck as well, says Ennio Aquilino in an interview with CRJ on page 11. Commander Aquilino explains that in the absence of firm information about the situation aboard the vessel, many alerts came directly from passengers aboard the vessel.
And during the terror attacks in Norway in 2011, emergency services used mobile phones when other communication systems didn't work. Children hiding from the gunman on Ut?ya Island were in touch with their families and the authorities via SMS or phone.
But there is a danger in reliance upon these devices. Just a few weeks before the events in Norway, a serious outage had affected large parts of the mobile network. This year, many countries and regions: France, USA, UK and the Netherlands to name but a few, have seen widespread and lengthy failures of service, leaving users unable to access their phone, emails, internet or SMS functions. There have been examples where such failures have meant that emergency numbers didn't work, where even those in charge of the networks were flummoxed because they no longer had landlines to fall back on.
A quick look at the attributed causes of some of these outages is very revealing - floods, fire and software errors. How easy it would be to add deliberate acts of sabotage or terrorism to this list...
Of course we know that in a major disaster, elements of critical infrastructure can - and do - fail. But what about those critical elements which crash owing to minor incidents, or which simply cannot be relied upon to perform during an emergency? How vulnerable are these systems?
As Mike Hall points out on page 54, the rapid pace of technology can be both a blessing and a curse. This is echoed by Marc Lerchs on page 63, when he says: "Over the past 20 years, we have come to live in a world where inventions and technology have developed so quickly that the inventors have forgotten to develop the lifestyle that fits in with these technological advances. Upcoming issues will be complex and interconnected, local and global. The inevitable result is many massive surprises."
It is therefore vital that in order to increase our resilience, we do not neglect the low-tech back-up solutions in case our shiny gadgets fail.