Lost your home to flooding, a tornado or other disaster? If you have a smartphone and a wireless connection, help just got a lot easier.
This week, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) unveiled an addition to its mobile site allowing disaster victims to apply for assistance directly from their smartphone. FEMA's rationale is clear: In a life-threatening emergency, seconds count. Residents are more likely to have a mobile phone on their person, or may have just enough time to grab one before heading to safety.
"More and more, I think we are reorienting our focus... to really developing tools that are useful to you in a mobile environment," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told Politico's Morning Tech.
(You can watch him run a demo of the new mobile site on multiple PDAs here.)
Fugate added that FEMA is exploring additional ways to deliver services via mobile and GPS technology. The agency already processes an average of about 40 percent of disaster applications online; this seems like a common-sense way to further streamline FEMA's operations.
Furthermore, FEMA's announcement is a timely reminder of the lifesaving capabilities of mobile communications. Five years ago next month, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana. The government's disjointed response in assisting the maintenance and repair of mobile communication links contributed significantly to the extended chaos.
Three years later, look at the improvement: During Hurricane Gustav, wireless technology provided real-time communication links vital to the rescue efforts. Among the examples, Tulane University kept more than 10,000 students aware of storm developments through Twitter. Mobile users accessed Gustav-related pages on social network sites such as Ning for real-time news alerts, on-site posts, and videos.
Looking to the future, mobile platforms are already linking voice, video, IM, and other data for first responders at federal, state and local levels. Just think how first responders could use mobile phones and GPS to organize a large-scale rescue operation with a location-based networking application (example: BrightKite), which would allow authorities to divide a region into smaller areas, directing volunteers in each one as necessary.
This would be particularly helpful in the aftermath of a serious earthquake. As reported last week in The Orange County Register, a new early-alert system in the O.C. could give residents up to 70 seconds warning of a major San Andreas earthquake. Through the use of mobile apps, that would be enough time to slow high-speed trains, shut down power plant generators and take other precautionary steps.
The augmented incorporation of mobile technologies into government-led relief efforts is already saving lives and resources. In the five years since the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, wireless has grown up as an industry, with the government recognizing the powerful organizational capabilities immediate access to mobile technology affords Americans stuck in disaster areas. FEMA's recent addition to its mobile site is one of many demonstrations that the government takes seriously the positive ramifications of amplifying its use of mobile devices, which are now inextricably linked with the day-to-day lives of Americans.
Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration.
Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.