The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.Gov program and the American Red Cross are adding mobile phones and chargers to its recommendations for basic supplies in citizen emergency preparedness kits. This marks both a real and symbolic step for wireless communications and social media in public emergency preparedness and response.Â
The Red Cross has already changed its “Be Red Cross Ready” sheetÂ which provides the “minimum” basic supplies every American should have to prepare for a disaster. DHS will make the changes to its Ready.Gov website later in the week, Ready’s acting director Rebecca Marquis confirmed today. The addition of mobile phones and chargers to the list is something that this blog has advocated.
Marquis says that the proliferation of cell phones and their value as a communications asset for citizens in emergency situations were the main reasons for the change. She says that the Ready.Gov website will also explain ways a mobile phone can be used in a disaster (e.g. text messaging when circuits are overloaded), and the site will also suggest that citizens add an ICE/In Case of EmergencyÂ entry to their mobile address books.
The move comes as mobile communications and social media are becoming increasingly central to public disaster preparedness and response. In fact, with information so important in an emergency, it can be argued that a mobile phone may be a citizen’s most valuable disaster tool.Â There had been some hesitation in the past about including mobile phones in minimum recommendations due to “digital divide” concerns, but their widespread proliferation has made that objection anachronistic. The need now is to explain to the public how best to use their mobiles in emergency situations. As I have witnessed first hand, including at a Red Cross relief shelter, having a phone charger is also very important, as would be anÂ extra cellphone battery.
Credit for the web site changes should go in part to Boston-based homeland security consultant and blogger David Stephenson who has been in the forefront of promoting the use of wireless communications and social media in disasters. Stephenson interested theÂ The Wireless Foundation,Â which had been involved in getting Amber alerts distributed wirelessly, in the subject. And, they collaborated on a very useful guide, the “VITA Advisories”,Â for using mobile phones in emergencies. Over the past couple years, the Foundation has been actively pushing for governmental and non-profit preparedness sites to include mobile phones. Mobiles are also a way that citizens have accessed social media applications, such as Twitter, in disaster situations. And, I would expect that social media will be increasingly integrated into government preparedness websites in the near future.