THE BLOG
09/05/2005 03:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Emergency Broadcast Network

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Andrew Rasiej wrote this during his stint as the “Table for One” blogger on Talking Points Memo Café:

The Internet is our Emergency Broadcast Network.”

God forbid another terrorist attack occurs, and even worse involves a radiological or biological agent, can you think of a better way to inform the population how to protect themselves? Are we really relying on the radio version of the Emergency Broadcast Network (not used on September 11) and police cars with bull horns to instantly direct citizens, for example, to shed their clothes, bathe immediately, and avoid eating or touching their hands to their eyes and mouths if a dirty bomb happens to go off.

On September 11, and on July 7, 2005, and on several other days of crisis, many of us went online to find out the latest information - and in many cases to deliver that information as citizen-journalists. Meanwhile, television viewers were left with the same clips, repeated over and over.

Today, as our hearts and minds focus on the people struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, we should note how indeed the Internet has functioned as our emergency broadcast network.

If you want to make a donation to help survivors, you can go to the Red Cross’s website, or that of a host of other aid organizations, right now and give online. Millions of us are doing so.

But the Internet, and people’s ability to access it to both get and give information, has opened a multi-dimensional form of participation that goes far beyond just giving money so someone else can, hopefully, deliver needed aid.

As Wired News points out, “websites have become hubs for putting badly needed goods and services directly into the hands of people who need them most. Where organizations like the Red Cross discourage anything other than financial donations, sites like Craigslist allow people to meet up with victims for face-to-face aid.”

Indeed, if you go to Craigslist.com and follow any of its Katrina links, you’ll find hundreds of people from all over the country offering to put people up in their homes, shelter their pets, make vital phone calls, and so on.

Survivors of the disaster are also using the net to share critical information with each other. For example, on http://www.scipionus.com/, people have created a detailed map of New Orleans with real-time reports on which roads are passable or not. (If the site looks a little like our own WeFixNYC.com, that’s not a coincidence—they both use the Google Maps tool, and at heart they have the same purpose.)

On Nola.com, a popular site run by the Times-Picayune newspaper, people are sharing harrowing reports of survivors trapped in hospitals, schools and the attics of private homes.

People are also using the net to post lists of missing (and found) persons. Families that have been rent apart are being woven back together in part through the use of this vital communications tool.

I'm not suggesting that access to the Internet is a higher priority than food, water, shelter and medicine. But in the face of a disaster that at least initially overwhelmed the top-down systems for emergency response, the net is enabling people to do far more than its inventers at DARPA imagined (remember, they just wanted to be sure that communications could survive a nuclear attack).

Andrew understood this four years ago when, after 9-11, he successfully pushed for the creation of a National Tech Corps to provide emergency technical, communication and database support in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist strike. Senator Ron Wyden turned that into "NetGuard" and it was adopted unanimously by the Senate and incorporated in the Homeland Security Act. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration dropped the ball and failed to finance its implementation. Like other sensible homeland security measures, it's languished up til now.

Right now, according to the tech blog BoingBoing, the FCC is pulling together an ad-hoc effort "coordinating resources and personnel from internet/wireless service providers to get communications networks up and running in in gulf states."

BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin reports that, according to notes from a conference call the FCC held with several major companies, including Intel and Cisco, "Lack of communications systems has been identified as a critical issue holding back aid, missing persons, law enforcement, etc. in crisis areas."

Once again, we're seeing how important a robust communications system can be.

Perhaps it's time to try to revive the National Tech Corps idea. Or, given the further development of bottom-up organizing on the net, we need something else. What do you think?