According to a number of sources, some Texas and Florida residents used social media to report emergencies during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma because they couldn’t get through to 911. In some cases emergency workers were able to respond but in other cases, good Samaritans who saw the pleas for help online organized and responded first.
The good news is that, according to the Federal Communications Commission, communications systems held up well. Only four percent of the cell sites in Hurricane Harvey’s path were knocked out, which is an improvement over the more than 1,000 cell sites knocked out during Hurricane Katrina. This implies the problems were more about call volume than inability to connect.
This poses a number of problems for emergency managers to consider when planning for future disasters:
- How can the 911 system be bolstered to handle a very high call volume?
- How to ensure the populace knows to not rely on social media but to call 911?
- What to do if and when citizens self-deploy and potentially make an already bad situation worse?
- How to identify duplication when people put calls for help out on both platforms?
- How to handle social media calls for help now that you know you will get them?
The changing way society uses technology has forced governments and first responders to adapt. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will transform the way emergency communications happen, both through technology and the people-factor. Strategies about handling these changes should be decided well before they are needed.