Twitter is an amazing communications service. Those 140 characters have generated conversations, shared interesting tidbits, organized movements and made a damned good news service. They are also an impressive emergency communications system. Not only are there Twitter apps for just about every mobile device, you can also use the SMS system on even the most basic cell phones to send and receive Twitter updates.
Why is this important? Because when disaster strikes, one of the first things that happens is both land and cellular phone systems become clogged with traffic as emergency services rev up and people start calling their loved ones to see if they are okay. Within a matter of minutes, it’s almost impossible to get a call through. In most situations, however, you can often send and receive SMS messages. SMS operates on its own communications backbone and it doesn’t hog as much bandwidth as voice communications. So, if you and your family have Twitter accounts set up for mobile access, each of you can let the rest of the family know your situation with one 140 character tweet. Here’s how it works.
The first step is to set up your Twitter account for mobile. In your settings, go to the Mobile pane and under the section titled Activate Twitter text messaging, select your country and enter your mobile phone number.
Next you’ll want to select the mobile options you want turned on. If you’re paying for text messages with your phone service, you will want to limit the notifications Twitter sends you. In this example, I’m only getting notifications from the Twitter accounts I’ve enabled for mobile. Even that can be a lot of traffic, but fortunately, you can turn that off/on via SMS so I usually keep that off until I need it.
The next step is to turn on mobile notifications for each Twitter user you want to hear from/send to in an emergency. Go to their profile and select the Turn on mobile notifications setting. I’ve also included a local news radio station which uses Twitter to broadcast news and weather bulletins. Make sure your family members have their Twitter accounts set up for mobile too.
To tweet via SMS all you do is send a text to 40404 in the US. If you’re outside the US, check Twitter help for the code for your country.
Now develop a plan for your family so everyone knows how to use Twitter and SMS in emergency situations. It could be as simple as having each person tweet where he/she is and his condition. That one tweet will let all the other family members know his status. You could also define a family hash tag for use in an emergency to manage longer conversations. SMS users can’t search for hash tags, but they can include them in their messages so others can. Don’t forget, there are family members outside the disaster zone who are concerned about you too.
You might want to create a cheat sheet of Twitter SMS commands to share with your family. Even though they may all be big Twitter users, if SMS is the only transmission system available, it’s good to have the important commands handy for reference. For smart phone users, save it as a note or PDF that they can keep on their phone.
Twitter is an amazing service for news and conversation, but its simplicity makes it a valuable tool for your disaster plan too. These few steps will help you and your family stay in touch when other communications services are too overloaded or fail.
To learn more about Twitter’s capabilities, check out The Twitter Book by Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein.