Mobile highlights emerge post storm

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Communication is critical in preparing for and responding to any emergency. Many Americans were dealt a harsh reminder of their reliance on mobile technology when Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, devastating portions of the Northeast.

One bright spot in the midst of tragedy and storm damage is the work done by New York City, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare and respond using mobile technology.

Well before the storm hit, New York City had a plan in place to issue SMS text mobile alerts through the Personal Localized Alerting Network system, a program managed collaboratively by FCC, FEMA and wireless carriers. At 8:36 pm EDT on Oct. 29 the nation's first alert using PLAN, instructing residents to take shelter, successfully arrived on mobile devices across the city.

Before Sandy arrived, the FCC provided the public with tips for communicating during disasters. And agencies' advance legwork--in the form of FEMA's mobile app, and the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center's mobile-friendly websites--ensured the public had mobile access to safety and shelter information, storm advisories and satellite images.

Sandy stunned wireless networks, but before the storm FCC activated the Disaster Information Reporting System to monitor outages and coverage loss of phone, internet and TV services. The voluntary system allows communications providers and broadcasters to report infrastructure problems and provide the FCC with a situational overview.

It seems from every emergency federal agencies learn more about how to improve and prepare before the next disaster strikes. For example, when tornadoes ripped through Joplin, Mo. in May 2011, FEMA drew on lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, opting to gather information from social media such as Twitter and Facebook to assess the situation.

The mobile success stories from Sandy were largely due to the years and months of work leading up to the event. As the water recedes and government reflects on their preparation and response strategies, it will be interesting to see what future mobile enhancements FCC, FEMA and others decide to tackle. - Molly