Text Messaging for Crisis Situations


After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, text messages sent by survivors trapped within collapsed buildings proved to be a lifeline. Aid agencies were alerted to their plight and were able to target their efforts.



Nancy Lublin, founder of Crisis Text Line, the US suicide prevention charity, goes so far as to say that the mobile phone might be able to save more lives than penicillin.

Her organisation has found texting 11 times more powerful than email, she says, because most people read their texts but often miss emails, and young people find it easier to express their feelings in a text because it’s quiet, private and a technology they’re comfortable with.

In 2016, during the terrorist attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed, terrified clubbers texted relatives asking them to call the emergency services on 911.

They knew that calling might've alerted the attacker to their whereabouts, with potentially fatal consequences.

So the humble Short Message Service (SMS) text has many advantages over other communications channels in a crisis.


Well, whether you’re a hotel, holiday resort, university campus, hospital, or factory, you have a duty of care to your guests, holidaymakers, students, patients or workers. If disaster strikes, you have a moral – and legal - duty to protect all these people as far as you can.

There’s also a business imperative to protect, and perhaps enhance, your corporate reputation by doing the right thing.

So what are the advantages of text over other communications methods in a crisis?

Most of us have mobile phones these days, so it makes sense to use a messaging system that is accessible wherever we happen to be, and which has a proven, resilient infrastructure.

And the amazing fact about texts is that we seldom ignore them – around 90% of texts are read within three minutes.

Emails, on the other hand, are often ignored, particularly if users don’t receive mobile push notifications telling them they have new messages in their inbox.

Voice calls are fairly useless in an emergency situation as switchboards become overloaded and mobile phone networks quickly become congested.

Say you’re a hotel and there’s a terrorist incident, a fire, or some other disaster. You need to tell your customers what to do as fast as possible.

Sometimes you may need to send several messages in sequence containing specific instructions. Texts can be consumed in bite-sized chunks that are not overwhelming to people who may be in a panicked state.

The timing, order and dissemination of those messages can be pre-programmed and automated, changing depending on the answers people give to specific questions.

For example, one of the first things a hotel, conference or university might need to find out is who is on site. Answers to a simple Yes/No question would then trigger difference responses.

If your hotel is on fire, the last thing you want absent guests to do is return to the hotel.

If they are on site, knowing exactly where could prompt specific safety instructions suited to those locations.

Senders know if a message hasn’t been read, triggering automatic reminder messages after a set time.


The US Federal Communications Commission advises citizens to "try text messaging" in an emergency because in many cases "messages will go through when your [voice] call may not. It will also help free up more 'space' for emergency communications on the telephone network".

Most US cities don’t allow residents to text the emergency services on 911, but many police departments across the country are now lobbying to include that feature, knowing that in certain situations, texting is the best option.

The UK’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat has been working with the mobile industry and emergency services since 2013 to test different mobile alert techniques.

One of the principles would be that messages could be sent en masse to people within a certain location without the authorities needing to know individuals’ numbers or for them to have opted in to such services.

After trials, location-based SMS was found to be the best solution, although another method called Cell Broadcasting was not completely ruled out as an alternative.

Of course, texting is not a perfect solution – no one communications channel can be.

Here are some challenges we face.

  • How do you phrase messages to the public that best convey important information and compel them to act on it?

  • How do you prove sender authenticity at a time when spam and phishing texts are eroding trust in the medium?

  • What do you do about those who don’t own a mobile, who don’t happen to have it with them on the day, or who simply don’t notice the texts because they are distracted by other activities?

  • What do you do in areas with poor mobile network coverage?

Most crisis communications specialists therefore advise messaging customers, clients or the general public via several channels, including social media and email.

Some of the mobile network’s shortcomings – patchy coverage being one of the most serious – might be addressed with the advent of 5G – or fifth generation mobile broadband.

5G, which is due to be rolled out globally in 2020, promises much faster data transfer speeds, greater coverage and more efficient use of the spectrum bandwidth.

It is 10 times faster than the highest speed 4G can manage and will enable mobile devices to switch automatically between the various newly available frequencies.

One frequency will be for long-range connections, across rural areas for example; one will be for urban environments, providing high numbers of users with high-speed connectivity; and there will also be a high-capacity frequency for densely populated areas, such as sports stadiums and railway terminals.

Lack of reception should become less of a problem.

Looking ahead, new technologies, such as augmented reality accessed through special glasses or smartphones, could supplement text messaging, showing hotel guests directions to the nearest fire exit, for example, and the location of the muster point.

But while we wait for new technologies to arrive, the humble text message is proving that it still has a lot of life left in it yet.

Megan Dickie