Analysis: Text messages could save your life

Mobile text services are increasingly being used to save lives, with a number of initiatives under way.

This month, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding a summit on the nation's current and future emergency alert systems, including ways to make best use of mobile phone services.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin says: "The ability to deliver accurate and timely warnings and alerts through cell phones and other mobile services is an important step in our efforts to help ensure that the American public has the information they need to take action to protect themselves and their families prior to, and during, disasters and other emergencies."

As national telecoms regulator, the FCC is setting the framework for a Commercial Mobile Alert System, scheduled to be ready by 2010. Participating carriers will deliver messages with three levels of priority: presidential alert, imminent threat and amber alert. Presidential alerts will override all others, and will be reserved for national emergencies. Imminent threat alerts will warn of dangers such as hurricanes and tornadoes or university shootings, while amber alerts will be used to give information on missing or endangered children.

Mobile operators AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon have all said they are willing to be part of the programme, but want some restrictions: messages should initially be in English and no longer than 90 characters.

Local government bodies have moved beyond traditional forms of emergency warnings such as sirens, loudspeakers and broadcast messages, and are increasingly using text messages to warn residents of storms or floods. Texts can be useful in reaching people who are not near a TV set or radio. For example, San Diego County installed an emergency alert system a year before fires ravaged California last autumn.

"We thought that on the level of a natural disaster or in the event of something like a terrorist attack or pandemic flu outbreak, this could be very useful," said Bill O'Callahan, a supervisor at San Mateo County's Office of Emergency Services.

Tip-offs

The warnings also flow back the other way. Police are beginning to benefit from tips by text. In April 2008, Crime Stoppers USA launched a text-a-crime service, asking people to text in crime tips to police. The application is in use in Boston, Cincinnati and Seattle.

"Today's generation is into text messaging," said Ron Conlin, President of Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound. "We think this will basically open up Crime Stoppers to a lot of eyes and ears that maybe hadn't been opened before."

Troy Daniels, deputy chief of police in Champaign, Illinois, said his local Crime Stoppers received two text tips on the day the service launched, one on a murder and the other on a drug dealer.

Boston's Text-a-Tip programme has reportedly helped solve two murders during its first few months of operation.

Anonymity is essential in encouraging people to use the service. Text messages are bounced between multiple servers thousands of miles apart, including one in Canada. The messages are encrypted and the sender given an alias.

SOS

Meanwhile, mobile phone manufacturers are developing the emergency aspect of handsets. For example, some Samsung phones offer an SOS function. If you press the volume button a certain number
of times, even when the keypad is locked, a text message is sent to a nominated friend warning them you are in danger.

The safety applications of mobile phones go beyond text messaging. MyRapidMD, a company in California, has developed a software application for mobile phones that carries medical information of use to emergency services. Data such as blood type, medications, allergies, and emergency contacts are held on the phone.

"It's not meant to be a full medical history, just key data for those first 15 minutes, when people most need that information," said MyRapidMD President Mark White.

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