Systems — especially warning systems — need to work perfectly, or not at all. Take Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system, which recently failed a trial because busy phone networks took hours to deliver vital SMS messages, while some some warnings sent by fax didn’t turn up at all, according to AFP. (More on the drill from DPA here.)
The report quotes Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre as saying that text messages sent by cell phones to emergency coordinators around the country took hours to arrive, while warnings sent by fax during the morning drill also failed to arrive. Said Pakdivat Vajirapanlop, the centre’s deputy operations chief: “The problem we faced was with communications. We have no idea whether our messages sent to local operations chiefs by fax and SMS arrived on time or not, and by midday some of them said they did not recieve the SMS. We need to know whether they have received our messages. What can they do if the messages don’t arrive on time? Then the warning is useless,” he said.
Indeed. SMS is not a reliable way to transmit messages, especially during a crisis. A warning system is as weak as its weakest link, and relying on SMS, or even fax, is not going to work. I’m just not sure what would work under such circumstances. The system needs to have an inbuilt check that a) ensures the message reaches its destination and b) the sender receives confirmation that the recipient has received and opened the message (what you might call passive acknowledgement. The recipient doesn’t need to actively acknowledge the message has been received, because that requires a further step. The message itself actually has an inbuilt acknowledgement mechanism.
SMS actually allows this confirmation, where the user can receive an SMS back informing him his message has been received by the sender. This system is not perfect of course, since nowadays SMS messages are filtered by increasingly sophisticated smartphones. So, for example, in the past an SMS’ arrival would intrude upon the recipient by a) making a noise and b) appearing on top of any other data or image on the phone’s screen, now smart phones can handle the SMS differently, from directing it to a specific folder to not appearing on the screen at all if another program is being used, or the phone is in silent mode, say. A great example of technology actually getting in the way of using the communication device as an alerting mechanism.
There are other ways, of course. One could use email trackers like MessageTag or DidTheyReadit which would alert the sender that the email has been sent. Although not popular with privacy advocates, this might be a way to inform a sender of a tsunami alert that a message has been read — even when, and perhaps where. Perhaps email trackers could be packaged and sold for this purpose?
On the other hand, how about picking up the phone and calling someone?