Monday, September 17, 2012

Texting in Emergencies: Communications Gone Right

Most Fridays, I drive the 35 miles or so from San Marcos to Austin, Texas, where I have a long-standing association with a laboratory on the Pickle Research Campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  No, we do not research pickles there, though that would not be a bad way to spend time.  It’s named for “Jake” Pickle, the U. S. Representative who steered a lot of federal energy money to UT in the 1980s, and UT returned the favor by naming the research campus after him.

It’s a mildly secure place where you need a parking sticker to get in, but otherwise it has the open feel of a research business park.  As I drove through the place about 10 A. M. on the way to the building I work in, I noticed a large crowd of people outside a dining hall.  Thinking maybe they were waiting for a tour bus, I didn’t wonder about it any longer until I pulled up at my building and saw another group of people milling around outside.  It had been raining lightly, so I knew these folks weren’t just taking the air for their health.

I saw a man I knew and asked him what was going on.  He said that the University had sent out a text message about ten minutes ago telling everybody to leave their building and get as far away as possible from it.  There was some confusion as to whether this applied only on the main campus or to the research campus as well, but when in doubt, most people decided to evacuate the premises.

There was no telling how long this was going to go on and I had some other obligations, so I just turned around and went back home.  Later I learned that the all-clear wasn’t given officially until noon, and that the bomb threat (that’s what it was) had been a hoax.  University officials had received a phone call about 8:35 that morning, and the caller said that bombs were set to go off in campus buildings in about 90 minutes.  The administration received some criticism for not notifying students sooner, but I want to talk about what went right:  the system of using broadcast text messages in emergencies.

I am old enough to remember the infamous “duck-and-cover” drills that were observed in schools in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War.  Back then, there were two main ways of notifying the public of a crisis such as a potential nuclear war:  radio and TV broadcasts, and sirens.  But if you didn’t happen to be watching TV or listening to the radio, and were out of the hearing range of a siren, the first you might know something was wrong would be your conversion into toast.  Still, these means were reasonably effective when we all thought we had at least thirty minutes’ warning before incineration.

But today the most common type of physical threat that educational institutions have to deal with is both smaller scale and more personal:  either a “shooter” on campus, for example, or a hidden bomb.  Neither of these comes with a guaranteed thirty-minute grace period.  So how nice it is to have a system in which identical messages containing a reasonable amount of information can be simultaneously sent to students via a medium that they nearly all use dozens of times a day.

During the media coverage of the evacuation, it emerged that UT has signed up some 60,000 people to receive emergency text messages.  I, alas, am not one of them, because I’m one of those old fogies who rarely carries a cellphone, never mind text messages.  But I had no trouble finding out what was going on from those who got the message.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the engineering ethics of communications technologies.  The specific example I used was the way fire and police communications broke down during the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.  The point I made was that modern communications technologies create an expectation that they will be there in an emergency, and when they collapse due to unusual circumstances it is a kind of moral failing.  I didn’t have any examples of systems working well in that article, but that was before the UT bomb scare last Friday.

While one could question the timing of the alert, the fact that nearly everybody got out of hundreds of buildings on campus with no injuries is a remarkable achievement in itself.  Such evacuations can easily go bad, as when someone yells “Fire” in a crowded theater and a stampede ensues.  Mood is everything.  Theater patrons scared out of their seats by a fire alarm are in a much different mood than students told to drop whatever dull thing they’re doing and go outside to chat.  There is also a tacit admission on the part of the administration that whatever you do, students will read their text messages during class, and in this particular case, it was a good thing.

If some techno-genie had come out of the sky in 1965 and offered to provide a way to send instant emergency messages to everybody in a school, or a city, people would have leaped at the chance, I think, even if it had cost something.  But the demand-driven spread of cellphones has provided a virtually free way of doing that.  It’s a shame that city governments have not also clued into this way of spreading emergency information in a larger way, although there may be municipalities that have.  It would be great for tornado warnings, for instance, but you can already get those texted to you by commercial weather channels.

It’s nice to discuss a technical incident with ethical implications that went right for a change.  Technology will also be involved in catching the guy who pulled the hoax, and I would not want to be in his shoes when they find him.  As UT’s President Powers said at a news conference, every such incident gives them more material to learn from so they can do better next time.  I hope they do, but I think they did pretty well this time too.

Sources:  An article describing the events of last Friday, Sept. 14 concerning the bomb threat on the UT campus can be found on the Austin American-Statesman webpage at  My article on the ethics of emergency communications technology, "We've Got to Talk:  Emergency Communications and Engineering Ethics," was published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 26, no. 3 pp. 42-48, Fall 2007.

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