What India Can Teach Us About Emergency Alerts.

At the beginning of May, the state of Odisha, on the east coast of India, was hit by a cyclone (aka hurricane) with up to 125 mph winds. This is a very poor part of India, where a more powerful storm had killed over 9,000 people 20 years ago. But because of advance preparations, a “zero casualties” policy of the Indian government, and millions of emergency messages, the official death toll from the storm is less than 80 people.

A lot of preparations went into minimizing the number of deaths. Over 900 shelters were created and evacuation plans were tested. A disaster task force, command and control structure and other elements were put in place, and people were recruited and trained to help. There was also a big improvement in early warning systems.  

Emergency notification was also a big part of the preparations and response.  As the New York Times reported: 

“To warn people of what was coming, they deployed everything they had: 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems blaring the same message on a loop, in local language, in very clear terms: ‘A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.’”

There is no IPAWS or equivalent in India. Instead, the government asks mobile carriers to send out messages on an ad hoc basis. There is also extensive use of WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook. But mobile phone ownership averages less than 65% in India, vs. almost 100% in the US, so many of these messages may have started by phone, but were then passed by word of mouth to get to everyone. A friend of ours in India tells us that it’s common for people to pass important messages on to the people they know, both in person and by electronic means. 

Our key takeaway is simple: emergency alerts save lives. We also think it’s important to send those alerts as many ways as possible, and to provide consistent messaging to drive home what the risks are and what officials want the public to do. We continue to develop Hyper-Reach to enable sending messages in lots of ways (including social media, RSS, push and Internet messaging) and to encourage consistency in messaging, using templates. And we’ve got new things coming this year to help with all of that. 

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