Mar 11, 2016 - New Technology, Internet

“There's no harm in hoping for the best as long as you're prepared for the worst.” – Stephen King, Different Seasons

Crisis and disaster can strike at any moment, bring catastrophes like earthquakes, tsunamis, or terror attacks into our lives in the blink of an eye. Emergency scenario reaction teams require anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people all working in sync to prepare necessary emergency information which will be distributed to the public as quickly and accurately as possible. A task of that size requires preparation and planning for how critical information is handled before, during, and after an emergency situation, and the Internet, IoT, and social media play a vital role in that information management. 

When all is calm and no harm is on the horizon, the internet is a bastion of information and convenience. From far too many pictures of cats to emergency life-saving information about how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a choking family member, the Internet is a necessary part of our daily lives in the 21st Century. When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT)—the network of physical objects like cars, phones, and entire city blocks which are embedded with data-collecting sensors and machines—the amount of data collected and transmitted to cloud-based applications results in actionable information. In this instance, actionable information, such as when your new truck informs you that your tire pressure is low, can be critical in avoiding disaster on the road. Similarly, smart cement, which has built-in sensors to allow information about cracking, pressure and stresses to be monitored, would send that necessary information to the cloud, which in turn alerts maintenance to investigate, and leads to early repairs and an avoidance of potential deadly collapses which can injure or kill hundreds of people. Today, large scale disaster preparedness and response requires services which rely on the information that is being stored in these invisible IoT networks. These networks, though already in place, are constantly being updated, modernized, and infused with the latest technologies which will eventually become the difference between manageable disaster and life-altering devastation for millions of people. 

During the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 40-meter high tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, the technology-driven country had suffered unimaginable devastation. The two natural disasters left 16,000 dead in their wake and tens of thousands more injured. The destruction the earthquake brought to the country’s vital infrastructure in many areas was immense, destroying roads, power lines, radio towers and public transportation. The damage hampered emergency rescue and response efforts, resulting in many people becoming trapped for days without communications. 

What many Japanese victims did to contact emergency services and relay evacuation information before the tsunami hit was turn to the digital world. During that time, social media sites Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as search engines like Yahoo and Google, became the only place that information was widely available at all times. Famous Japanese celebrities even lent their social media accounts, which reached millions of fans around Japan, to deliver life-saving information to the masses. Within days of the disaster, Google, Yahoo and Mixi became information-sharing hubs where families could check for missing loved ones, find the best ways to get out of their stricken areas, and pass on other critical information about emergency services. Later still, the internet served to bring much needed aid and financial fundraising from the international community, an effort that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. The role that the internet played in this particular disaster was vital, but it was only effective during and after the disaster. 

Since the Japanese earthquake, the international community has made preparedness in the age of IoT a primary concern for all. Seeking to address how rescue efforts could have been improved during the 2011 Japanese disaster, evaluations and collected reports painted a picture of how the internet’s infrastructure was limited, but ultimately provided what telecommunications and radios could not. Technological first responders relied on the internet to locate family members with apps like Person Find, as well as using Twitter to communicate road closures and map routes to locations where many trapped people still needed help. Email was the key to government agency communication and coordination as the phone systems were in large part down, overloaded, or otherwise being reserved for emergency communications only. In the critical 20 minutes between the cataclysmic earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami, emergency responders had to communicate to everyone near the coastlines to evacuate to higher ground, a feat which was largely accomplished by using Twitter and social media accounts. When all else failed or became compromised, the internet became the sole safe passageway to maintain operational emergency responses. 

The media also needed to report on the disaster as it happened, both to inform the public of rescue efforts and shelter locations, as well as to communicate the state of emergency to the international public. For this task, social media reigned as it became the only reliable source for accurate, on-the-spot information from the people inside of the disaster. In this way, misinformation was simultaneously being thwarted by having masses of on-scene people confirm or deny emergency information.

What the Japanese disaster taught the world is that modern technology in its current form is capable of aiding emergency responders when primary means of communications fail. It also indicated that the primary communications of the past, the physical elements of the IoT, are in serious need of incorporating new technologies. Social media is very reliable during a disaster, and more is being done on a global scale to not only include social media as an emergency tool, but to enable the largest social media sites to take on more principal roles in disaster communications. In fact, Twitter proved to be so essential during the earthquake that Japan is considering making Twitter its standardized communications technology during times of disaster. 

In the United States, the need for quick, reliable emergency communications is still a work in progress. Luckily, FEMA is preparing to strengthen our responses by launching a new satellite in 2017 which will support HAM radio operators by offering a “more reliable connection and a new level of capability in their communications.” FEMA also offers a mobile app (available here- which can alert app users about emergency situations by providing alerts from the National Weather Service, the location of shelters and recovery centers, and survival tips and checklists that you can share with your friends and family. Additionally, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate has commented on the rise of use and reliance on mobile technologies in disaster situations: “Emergency responders and disaster survivors are increasingly turning to mobile devices to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.” With government agencies recognizing the need for the internet to take on a larger role in disaster preparedness and response, we can be more prepared for whatever disaster may strike.