Phones to Reduce Loss of Life in Disaster

         Immediate Help in Emergency

         Local Level Communication

         Organization of Rescue and Relief

         Local Level Coordination of Relief

         Disaster Reduction

         Emergency Management

         Loss of Life Reduction

         Early Condition Determination



Local Level Communication Immediately After Disaster To Organize Rescue/Relief  
Roles for Communications and Databases

Global Crisis Solution Center 

Last updated:  January 26 2005





This paper outlines the possibility of coordinating information and individuals on the local level immediately after a disaster.  Coordinating takes place through the development of communication channels and a constantly updated series of information databases to provide emergency relief and aid before the major relief efforts arrive. Much loss occurs in the interim hours or days which could be prevented if the outside world helped in the coordination of operations with the local population through directed communication with the local residents. The fact that this is only partially applicable in much of the developing world at the present time will be discussed.



Introduction - Ground Control Coordination on the Local Level

An Indication That This Is Possible

What Normally Occurs In the Aftermath of A Disaster

The Actual Coordination Itself on the Local Level

The Limits of Present Communication Capabilities

Major Problems Relieved by Local Level Communications & Databases

Steps To Be Taken After Termination of the Initial Stage



Ground Control Coordination on the Local Level


Once a disaster has occurred there is often lack of access, insufficient materials, logistics and mobility to bring in supplies and aid. While rescue efforts and material stockpiling takes place for the eventual push to provide aid from the outside, many lives are lost and relief efforts on the ground wasted because there is little coordination at the local level.


The one thing that is usually ever-present in the modern world of communication, even in some underdeveloped or remote areas, is the capability of locals and visitors to the region to communicate with the outside world and with each other.


Often one of the basic problems facing the local population is the lack of any structure which can provide immediate support or coordination for relief in a major disaster, or the possibility that those who were in a position to organize or provide relief are lost in the disaster leaving a vacuum which needs to be filled


Therefore, the best and most effective procedure is to organize response from outside the local level using whatever is available in terms of communication capabilities with the local population. Organization and information can be partially directed from outside the area using coordination facilitators and a database which collects and organizes data which is coming in from the disaster area through all forms of communication.



An Indication That This Is Possible


An indication of the possibility of this working are data coming from the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia supplied by a newsletter communication indicating the number of mobile phones operational in the Sri Lanka Region during the tsunami. Also described is the use of SMS messaging to the area to gather information by several foreign ministries.  To quote:

"1. Using telecom operator information it could be established, that 10,252 foreign mobile phones were turned on when the tsunami hit
Sri Lanka. 2,321 of these responded to an SMS but at least one call was made from 4,269 phones. This gives valuable first information on the number affected. A working phone indicates a survivor that can be contacted.

2. The Swedish and Danish Ministries of Foreign Affairs sent SMS-messages to phones originating in
Sweden resp. Denmark asking the user to respond. This enabled them to gather information on specific survivors and inform on national services and evac flights. These messages ... [were] only sent to phones operated by the national carriers in the tsunami-region...." (1)


Further indication of the use of SMS messaging is attested to by the following:

"Days after the tsunami, Finnish mobile phone providers agreed to broadcast a text message that hit every Finland-registered cell phone in Thailand (about 6,000). The message contained information about two evacuation centers for Finnish citizens. Finland then did the same in Sri Lanka" (2).


If in fact communication can be established, what are the probabilities what this can be put to use in saving lives before the arrival of outside relief?  To understand this, we need to look at the behavior of survivors in the middle of and immediately after a disaster.



What Normally Occurs In the Aftermath of a Disaster


A number of things occur in the middle of a disaster which can be redirected and placed into a more effective relief and aid structure through communication with minimal outside help:

Possibility of Communication

         Individuals who can communicate beyond the disaster area are often unaware of who to contact or what information may aid in the relief effort. Most calls are to friends and family to update them on conditions on the ground and the survival or loss of family members

Need for organization

         Many individual who could otherwise be helping in the relief effort are sheltering, wandering around, or attempting to find family members.  Added to this is the fact that individual who could be of help in the initial efforts are often displaced by the disaster itself and stay where they are, or are directed en-mass into 'safe' areas and kept from providing their expertise and their willingness to help.


  • Those individuals who want to help often have no direction, no tools, although available, and are left to their own devices.

Need for Information

  • Those in the disaster area do not know of the magnitude of the disaster beyond their very limited local environment.
  • The potential sources of safety, relief, aid, equipment and supplies in the midst of the disaster area are unknown as are the areas close by where the disaster is mitigated or non-existent.
  • Most individual have no information which would tend to minimize the shock of the disaster, or place the disaster at the local level into perspective including the possibilities of avoiding or minimizing further events which could make conditions worse.

  Lack of organization

         Focal points for search and rescue are often unknown or are often revisited again and again thereby wasting time and manpower.

         Inefficient and often futile efforts are attempted when other procedures and efforts could be more effective including coordinated group efforts.


The Actual Coordination Itself on the Local Level


Coordination is made up of communication, database information, maps and the recruitment of volunteers and the directing of relief effort through facilitators.




    What can be accomplished with early communication?

  • Information on survivors
  • Identification of causalities
  • Development of a communications network based on incoming calls from locals contacting outside relatives, government or other institutions
  • Create local communications network for coordination of efforts or location of resources
  • Development of a local rescue and relief effort using locally derived information and communication channels
  • Information and guidance on coordination of efforts to help in local area
  • Information on likelihood of repeat of disaster within a specific time frame and measures to take to protect and respond.
  • Knowledge based on what actions to take to minimize loss of life, further damage
  • Development of maps of area effected by disaster and extent
  • Dissemination of the call to outside focal point databases and coordinating centers with any information which will be useful in local and outside relief and aid operations 
  • Communication with individuals in outlying areas not affected by the disaster who are capable of providing specific types of help


     In order to establish a communication base, a number of factors must be present:


  • The cell networks in the affected area and the interconnection with other networks in the area.
  • The number of identifiable mobile phones and the national agreements established for transmission.
  • The number of satellite phones in the area which can be identified.
  • The existence of agreements for use of all-at-once cell broadcasting to digital mobile phone systems. (3)



     How to find phones in the area


  • Fortuitous local level reporting of events on the ground (friends and relatives reporting to a centralized facility) which can be become the staging nexus for further communication.
  • Contacts with units known to have satellite phones e.g. news, military, scientific research, and individuals travelers.
  • GPS readings of satellite phones when phone turned on or through triangulation of calls actually made.
  • Return calls from all-at-once cell broadcasting to mobile phone receivers. (3)
  • Contact of outside individuals who have communication links with locals who may be able to provide information on others at the local level who can provide the structure, expertise, command capabilities, and materials needed to tackle one or more of the current problems
  • Identification from state, regional levels those capable of providing coordination and enhancement of the communication capabilities at the local level



      The immediate local level coordination and relief is based on information gathered

      from all contacts providing the basis of actively updated databases which can       

      performing the following functions:

  • Provision of a base for further communications to outside sources and to the local area
  • Provision of many different types of information including type and stability of communication, channels, links to available resources and materials both outside and locally
  • Coordination of  actions on the ground and create meaningful maps of the information for use in stabilizing disaster response
  • Development of a local network of individuals for generating data for the database


     Minimal features of the database

  • Operable by all potential users and accessible given a minimal amount of restrictions to anyone who may b able to give aid or help coordinate.
  • Available to outside relief and coordinating institutions as well as at the local level providing information for directing the local level rescue and relief effort.
  • Regionally based and tied into an international hub in order to adequately relate to the language and the customs of the different disaster areas.
  • Capable of analyzing data and providing information and maps in a form readily useful to efforts on the ground.



      Provision of constantly updated maps detailing the area and giving the extent of the

      disaster, calls for help, volunteers, capabilities, communications for stabling local

      network, types of local resources available, and current relief efforts, etc.


      These maps need to be transmitted to the local level in any form which will be understood      

       and utilized to the fullest, e.g. verbal maps if visual capability is not present.  It is

       important to attempt to understand the capabilities of the local coordination points and

       the tasks being performed in order to give information which is pertinent and




       The actual coordination on the ground is composed of the further input of information to     

        the databases for analysis and redistribution, establishing authority, the distribution f

        responsibility, and the identification of resources and capabilities.


       One major problem facing coordination on the ground is the fact that many individuals do

       not want to or can not volunteer. Illustrative of this is a case during the recent tsunami, in

       which medic and several volunteers who were helping wounded to be evacuated by

       helicopter and tried to get other survivors in the area to help without success.  This can

       often be overcome through the presence of communication from an internationally

       recognized source.


Collection of Data

  • Identification of type of data needed
  • Coordination and distribution of information gathered locally and from a dynamic database outside of the disaster area
  • Provision of cross local communications channels, the identification of receivers and the development of the physical structure which will facilitate the operation
  • Providing at the upper levels the basic information and ideas to be used in the coordination and delegation of responsibilities in the local relief and aid process


Establishing authority

  • Development of a command structure which is agreeable to a majority of relief workers must be established.
  • Coordinating the authority on the ground so that those who come to help will be integrated into the relief, search and aid structure
  • Contact with local organizations of all types which are capable of immediately organizing search, rescue, relief, and shelter


       All of the following steps need to be rehearsed for a number of different scenarios

       In particular, centralized input of data must be coordinated to include;

1. Centralized authority structure

2.  Cooperating agencies for each possible scenario

3.  Previous collections of needed information worldwide as the backbone of the databases.

4.  Database expertise including retrieval, information consolidation and relay, and map creation

5.  Training of online communicators and facilitators for handling coordination on the ground.

             6.  Installation of database hubs local to the disaster area.


Distribution of responsibility

In some cases, only one or two of the following will be actualized in any situation.  The ideal is as follows:

  • The different facets of rescue, search, areas of relief must be delineated in terms of type of disaster, mobility, capabilities present on the ground, and resources as a minimum. Individuals should then be placed in charge of: - basic command structure, search, rescue, health,  basic food and water procurement, provisions for safety and protection, communication within the local relief effort, communication with outside world, information, facilitators for reuniting families, basic care to the sick, the injured, the disoriented, counseling.
  • Phone connections can be linked with outside coordinators who will help those contacted to coordinate activities (search and rescue, aid, relief, search for close resources) giving planning, direction, and authority to those on the ground.
  • Scheduling of tasks
  • Local communications network.
  • Search and discovery of materials available locally must be conducted and distributed


The Limits of Present Communication Capabilities


At the present time, the state of communication capability worldwide will not allow an efficient and seamless operation of this sort except in particular areas. However, limited communications capabilities must not stop the development of this form of initial operation if it will save lives. The underpinnings of an operation such as this will be tried and tested once the capability is actualized. The rapid growth of the mobile phone and the satellite phone industry will connect a larger part of the population even in underdeveloped countries.  International agreements and licensing now being forged between countries will permit this type of communication to take place seamlessly within the next few years. 


Below is a description of the present state of affairs regarding communication which would allow this type of pathway to initial organization of civilian population and information necessary for such relief.


Cellular/Mobile Phones


Maps of location can be developed for those sets which are turned on and those possessing GPS or for those phones without GPS through a triangulation system calculating the direction of a phone's signal from two or more locations.  At least one country is currently requiring all cent phone carriers to provide GPS technology in cell phones by the end of 2005 which will trace calls to within 100 meters or less.(4)


The biggest problem with cell phone(5) connections world wide is the paucity at the present time in many countries of complete coverage and the necessity of agreements between nations relative to roaming. This is mostly true of the developing nations. Even in some of these countries, network ownership is independent and roaming between the networks is not possible e.g. Indonesia.


A bird's eye view of this is given by maps of cell phone network coverage for most of the world's countries


Cell phone networks of the world

Example of coverage for selected countries: United States - almost total coverage except for middle of Nevada. While there is high coverage, the proportion of the population owning a mobile phone is not as high as other industrialized nations, India - small islands of coverage in major population centers, Indonesia - very little coverage, Zambia - very little coverage except in three major population centers, Israel - almost total coverage.


However where there is coverage and where there are roaming agreements between countries, the possibility of using this form of communication is very good.


Satellite Phones GMPCS (Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite) (5a)


Satellite phones are much less widely used and present some difficulties. Primarily, this type of phone is expensive and currently owned by travelers, news reporters, military units, aid agencies, and wealth individuals residing mainly in the highly urbanized areas. While global area covered by fixed satellites is known, satellite phone presence is sparse at any given moment in time. 


Hans Zimmermann (6), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA) speaking about GMPCS "Over the next few years we shall see the establishment of GMPCS systems and further progress in data communications is reported almost daily. Competition among operators and service providers will inevitably lead to a drastic reduction of tariffs for satellite based systems. Nevertheless, a consolidated approach by all users of communications for humanitarian assistance is necessary to ensure the application of preferential tariffs for their communications over public networks. In addition, a continuous feedback from this group of specialized users will help the industry to better fulfill the communications requirements of disaster response."


Maps for cell phone use and for satellite phones are available for just about any point in the world.  The following link gives the areas covered by fixed satellites. Satellite Signals

Satellite internet broadband service providers and dish pointing - home page. List of Satellites in Geostationary Orbit


All-at once Messaging System Through Cell Broadcasting (CB)


Work now being done on Cell Broadcasting (CB) can reach 95% of mobile phones in a region simultaneously with text messages within less than a minute. CB is currently in development stages and reported at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe Hyogo, Japan 2005. The description below indicates what it is and the current possibility of its use. CEASA formed Cell@lert(sm) to develop CB which is part of the functioning of most digital mobile phone systems placing text messages on the screen, like SMS does, but all-at-once.  CB does not contribute to load, is scalable from about one block to a whole country since it uses existing mobile networks infrastructure, and is suitable for developed or developing areas. 65000 different channels can be used for different purposes and is handled by The Mobile Data Corporation which purchases network access and related technology licensing. (8)

411 Service (currently for U.S.)

In the Unites States, a further attempt to bring instant messaging to mobile phones is in the works. A consortium of five of the six major wireless carriers - Cingular Wireless, Nextel, Sprint, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile is envisioning a single number service 411 to all mobile-phone subscribers. Only Verizon Wireless thus far is refusing to participate. Chicago IL (UPI) Sept 24, 2004 Wireless World Cell Phone '411' Worries

Other Partial Solutions to Disaster Messaging  Alert Retrieval Cache  The Emergency Email & Wireless Network:  Common Alerting Protocol, v. 1.0
OASIS Standard 200402, March 2004  Document identifier: oasis-200402-cap-core-1.0




Emergency Communications Systems for National and International Disaster Relief and Aid Teams


While this is not relevant to the present discussion of immediate communication using phones already available in a region, it is included to round out the picture of emergency telecommunications. At the present time, most of the emergency communication systems will be set up by organizations sending teams into a stricken area to provide relief and communication. This usually will take agreements and licenses to operate and will involve equipment which precludes involvement of the ordinary individual who might be of help during the initial phases of a disaster.


While speaking about Telecommunications in the Service of Humanitarian Assistance

Hans Zimmermann, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA) shortwave radio was mentioned. With an initial investment which is typically lower than the communications fees incurred for a single land mobile satellite terminal with high traffic volume, a shortwave radio station can be installed. As part of a private network, such a link will not cause any further expenditure. With the newly available interconnectivity to private public data networks such as LAN, WAN and the Internet the use of such data links is rapidly increasing.(6)


Further headway was made with the ratification of the Temprere Convention by 30 countries January 2005. For current list of signatories - UNOG United Nations Office at Geneva News and Media

 The Convention simplifies the use of life-saving telecommunications equipment during a disaster.  "Until now, the trans-border use of telecommunication equipment by humanitarian organizations was often impeded by regulatory barriers that make it extremely difficult to import and rapidly deploy telecommunications equipment for emergencies...Regulatory barriers that impede the use of telecommunication resources for disasters are waived. These barriers include the licensing requirements to use allocated frequencies, restrictions on the import of telecommunication equipment as well as limitations on the movement of humanitarian teams." (7)

Additional information about the provision of emergency telecommunications during relief operations can be found at

Major Problems in Outside Relief Once It Arrives


Some of  the following problems could be relieved if information from local level communications and the subsequent databases was available:


When the advanced relief effort arrives, there is often a lack of integration with the local efforts.  Local efforts should not be swept aside but should provide detailed briefing, continuation in the provision of information, and the coordination and integration of personnel and information with the advanced relief operation. Without this, the following can often occur: 


Aid is often sent to the wrong areas or areas already receiving aid only because a communication link has been opened and the magnitude of the effects of the disaster are known or information coming from other areas and sources is generally not available or made public.


In the distribution of aid, one or more types of vital aid are often forgotten in the rush to provide what is available and further aid is sometimes not forthcoming.


The special expertise of individuals in the disaster area often go unnoticed or are not know known once local operations are organized.  This expertise should be one of the first items on the agenda


Local materials and capabilities are often not searched for or if accumulated for use in the different areas of the disaster, are not used.


Duplication of search and rescue efforts as well as aid efforts create an over abundance in some areas while leaving other areas lacking and nothing in other areas.


Precursors to aid do not precede the aid effort - clearing of roads, development of landing areas, identification of areas for safe distribution, identification of threats to efforts.


Items or types of aid are given without support equipment, knowledge of use by local populations, or taboos against use. 



Steps To Be Taken After Termination of The Initial Stage


Institutionalization of contacts and knowledge so that it is available during the next disaster regardless of type


Development of local level training of emergency communications and necessary formats and procedures for communicating


Improvement of local emergency communications structure


Development of type of information needed and how to report to those handling the databases and helping in the coordination of local disaster relief


Institution of improvements in database information collection.


Development of public awareness of  where to call if receive communications from the disaster area and the type of information to give to central data collection points



(1)  Torsten Arendrup Consultant responding to the email list


  by Kevin Maney



CEASA formed Cell@lert(sm) to develop Cell Broadcasting (CB)  part of the functioning of most digital mobile phone systems which puts text messages on the screen, like SMS does, but all-at-once.  CB works even in full overload and does not contribute to load reaching 95% of mobile phone in less than a half minute. CB is scalable from about one block to the whole country Since it uses existing mobile networks infrastructure, it is suitable for developed and least developed countries alike. Senders can select the area. 65000 different channels which can be used for different purposes all handled by The Mobile Data Corporation purchases network access and related technology licensing of all.




(5) - Good description of cellular networks by wikipedia. Also see: History of Cellular/Mobile Phones by Inventors


(5a) The International Telecommunication Union  defines  GMPCS (Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite)  as follows: "GMPCS is a personal communication system providing transnational, regional or global coverage from a constellation of satellites accessible with small and easily transportable terminals. Whether the GMPCS satellite systems are geostationary or non-geostationary, fixed or mobile, broadband or narrowband, global or regional, they are capable of providing telecommunication services directly to end users. GMPCS services include two-way voice, fax, messaging, data and even broadband multimedia."


(6)Telecommunications in the Service of Humanitarian Assistance

Hans Zimmermann, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer, United Nations Office for the

Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA)*


(7) Press Release regarding Tampere Convention on Emergency  Telecommunications

received 7 January 2005 from Hans Zimmermann  International Telecommunication Union
For immediate release Telephone:+41 22 730 6039  Telefax:+41 22 730 5933
Description: Tampere Convention on Emergency Telecommunications Comes Into Force International Treaty to Ease Access to Life-Saving Technology for Relief  Workers

Geneva, 07 January 2005 Victims of disasters will now be able to benefit from faster and more effective rescue operations, thanks to the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication  Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations that comes into force Saturday, 8 January
2005, following ratification by  30 countries.

The Tampere Convention calls on States to facilitate the provision of prompt telecommunication assistance to mitigate the impact of a disaster, and covers both the installation and operation of reliable, flexible telecommunication services. Regulatory barriers that impede the use of
telecommunication resources for disasters are waived. These barriers include the licensing requirements to use allocated frequencies, restrictions on the import of telecommunication equipment as well as limitations on the movement of humanitarian teams. "OCHA aims to ensure the best response to disasters to prevent loss of life and help survivors. The Convention will make that work easier," said Jan Egeland, Operational Coordinator of the Tampere Convention.

The Convention also safeguards the privileges, immunities and facilities granted to persons providing disaster assistance by granting them immunity from arrest and detention and exempting them from taxation and duties. As the first treaty of its kind, the Convention also defines the non-governmental organizations and non-State entities whose personnel would be granted these privileges and immunities when engaged in supporting the work of UN humanitarian and rescue organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), OCHA and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC).

The Convention defines the overall framework for the cooperation among States parties and all other partners in international humanitarian assistance. It describes the procedures for request and provision of telecommunication assistance, recognizing the right of a State party to direct, control and coordinate assistance provided under the Convention within its territory. It defines specific elements and aspects of the provision of telecommunication assistance, such as termination of assistance and settlement of disputes. It requires States to make an inventory of the resources both human and material available for disaster mitigation and relief, and to develop a telecommunication action
plan that identifies the steps necessary to deploy those resources.

The Convention requires a requesting State party to the Convention to put in writing, prior to the arrival of telecommunication assistance in a disaster zone, the fees it expects to receive or have reimbursed. To avoid excessive charges, the fees are based on an agreed model of payment and reimbursement, as well as on other factors such as the nature of the disaster, natural hazard and the particular needs of developing countries.

In fulfilling the objectives of the Convention, the Operational Coordinator will seek the cooperation of other appropriate United Nations agencies, particularly the International Telecommunication Union.

The seventeen-article, legally binding international treaty, was unanimously adopted on 18 June 1998 by the delegates of the 75 countries that attended the Intergovernmental Conference on Emergency
Telecommunications (ICET-98), hosted by Finland in Tampere, about 200 km north of Helsinki. The Treaty was then open for accession, requiring 30 ratifications to come into effect.

 For further information, please contact:
Mr Cherif Ghaly Chief, Information and Communications Technology Section,
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Tel: +41 22 917 2184  Fax: +41 22 917 0440
E-mail>Contact Dr Cosmas Zavazava
Head, Special Unit for Least Developed Countries
Telecommunication Development Bureau International Telecommunication Union
Tel: +41 22 730 5447 E-mail>Contact


(8)  CEASA formed Cell@lert(sm) to develop Cell Broadcasting (CB) part of the functioning of most digital mobile phone systems which puts text messages on the screen, like SMS does, but all-at-once.  CB works even in full overload and does not contribute to load reaching 95% of mobile phone in less than a half minute. CB is scalable from about one block to the whole country since it uses existing mobile networks infrastructure, it is suitable for developed and least developed countries alike. Senders can select the area. 65000 different channels can be used for different purposes all handled by The Mobile Data Corporation which purchases network access and related technology licensing.


Reading  Comprehensive Preparation/Response Paradigm For Natural Disasters, Terrorism, Accidents  - Global Crisis Response System (GCRS) Mobile Distributed Information Retrieval For Highly-Partitioned Networks, Department of Computer Science

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA  An Approach Towards A Decentralized Disaster Management Information Network  New Approaches in Disaster Communications Towards A Global Communications Lifeline Infrastructure Gordon A. Gow (MA) Graduate Programme in Communications, University of Calgary 1997 JAPAN: Disaster broadcasts via cell phone eyed USLA Asia Institute

Satellites and Homeland Security by Satellite Industry Association  Very good presentation of key principles for a Disaster Management policy and pages on disaster management in general by Ministry and Department of Provincial and Local Government, South Africa P Disaster Response Network Member Guidelines

The Disaster Response Network (DRN) of the American Psychological Association (APA) is the mechanism through which volunteer psychologists respond to local and national disasters and other traumatic events. IPLES FOR A DISASTER-MANAGEMENT POLICY