A 140 Character Disaster Response Plan

Mat Morgan
Communications Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, American Red Cross

While twin forces of urbanization and climate change have compounded the effects of disasters over recent decades, advances in technology have had a similarly drastic effect on the ability of disaster responders to quickly communicate with affected people. Mobile phones empower people to receive essential information and engage in dialogue with authorities about their needs.

Phone service, for example, was quickly restored after the Haiti earthquake that devastated the urban area of Port-au-Prince in 2010. As mobile phones reach the majority of Haitians, Trilogy International Partners developed a messaging application that allowed the Red Cross to send text messages via SMS (short message service) to phone users in targeted geographic areas. By contrast, traditional SMS services require broadcast messages be delivered to every subscriber on a carrier’s network.

In practice, this means that a Red Cross officer can select one or more cell phone towers and send messages to all mobile phones within range of those towers. The Red Cross can then:

  1. Provide Haitians with advice and offers of aid that are relevant to their particular circumstances. While this approach must complement other public education and outreach, it allows for near-instantaneous communication regardless of the area or population size;
  2. Engage in two-way communication. In order to truly meet needs of Haitians, the Red Cross must engage beneficiaries in an ongoing conversation about their needs and questions; and
  3. Benefit from a capability that has driven unprecedented response rates. Red Cross programs and services can be adjusted as needed to adapt to a dynamic and complicated environment.

This development enables the Red Cross to reach people with messages that are important to their well-being. For instance, during the 2010 hurricane season, vulnerable subscribers received SMS alerts warning of approaching storms:

Kwa Wouj/DPC: Nan de jou kap vini yo lanmè a ka monte. Fòk nou veye pou si dlo monte, pou nale kote ki gen mòn.
Red Cross/DPC: There could be very high tides over the next two days. Be aware of sea water rising and move to higher ground if necessary.

Around the same time, the global Red Cross network implemented a public health education campaign following the national cholera outbreak. It has sent more than 4 million SMS messages to people at risk.

People in affected areas received messages like this:

Kwa Wouj: Bwe seròm oral pou ka trete dyare. Yon lit dlo trete, 8 ti kiyè sik, 1/2 ti kiyè sèl.
Red Cross: Drink ORS to treat diarrhoea. 1 litre of treated water, 8 teaspoons of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Conversely, those concerned about contracting cholera in other areas received prevention tips:

Kwa Wouj: Lave men w ak savon pou w pwoteje tèt ou kont kolera- devan, dèyè tout dwèt ou ak zong ou.
Red Cross: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap to protect against cholera – front, back, between fingers and nails for 20 seconds.

This application is now being made available to other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and there is no doubt that it will continue to evolve and serve as an essential interface between response organizations and disaster survivors without needed relief, services and information.

Mat Morgan is the American Red Cross communications officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. Email him at MorganMat@usa.redcross.org.

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