Texting More Effective in a Disaster

In nearly every case, texting on mobile phones works even when voice calls are impossible. It stands to reason then that texting could and should play a major role in your disaster recovery (DR) planning.

“The very first responders usually are average citizens, who happen to be on the scene of where a disaster is unfolding,” said Lee McKnight, professor at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) at Syracuse University. “For CIOs, those first responders may well be your own employees, helping their community and helping your business.”

McKnight, like many others, finds SMS (texting) to be such a critical feature in successful recovery efforts that he’s working on ways to make it even better for emergency use. Specifically, he is working on the iDAWG — Intelligent Distributed Augmented Wireless Gateway — a device that can share SMS messages, photos, voice and data, across any device, operating on any frequency, to aid in disaster recovery; even when cell towers are down or jammed with traffic.

S.O.S. for SMS

Critics might question why anything else is needed when the current cell phone provider-based SMS seems to be working beautifully. The answer almost always circles around to a need for SMS that may be less vulnerable to traditional provider quirks.

Blackberry, for example, recently suffered widespread service disruption across Europe, the Middle East and Africa on a disaster-free day due to a glitch in a data center. Vodafone Egypt was quick to tell its customers that the problem was all on Blackberry’s side of the equation in a rather indignant defense of its own reputation. The phone carrier didn’t add that such an outage could affect any carrier and any SMS service data center at any time.

For the most part, companies are aware of current SMS frailties and are actively seeking other means of augmenting or leveraging it. For example, itrezzo’s BlackBerry PIN sync solution was developed at the request of The Department of Veteran Affairs in direct response to 9/11. itrezzo’s customers — Department of Justice, FCC, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, The Carlyle Group, City of Berkeley, St. Jude Hospital, Shell, Hogan Lovells, HBO, and CNN among others — count on the company’s unified contact management (UCM) solution using both SMS and Blackberry PIN-to-PIN blasts to see them through.

For eight years, itrezzo UCM has deployed servers behind the firewalls of these companies and government agencies. But it’s important to recognize that even this service, like other services used today, still rely on servers and data centers.

Such are the rigors of keeping clouds aloft and earthly communications plugged in – datacenters are at the root of everything, SMS included – and datacenters can and do fail. Nonetheless, SMS is the best we have at the moment and it works reasonably well in disaster zones. So how can it best be harnessed for use in enterprise disaster recovery efforts?

Behind the lines of fire (and hurricanes)

The secret to successfully recovering from a disaster is and always will be in the availability of resources far behind the front lines of the event. Certainly, a strong DR server back-up plan should be in place with regular updates and testing to ensure all is ready and functional. But SMS can be helpful here too in triggering the recovery from the backup centers or other offices.

“In a situation where data loss has had a filter effect across geographically segregated offices, a quick fix solution may be easily sent via SMS to a contact on the other end for quick resolution,” said Abhik Mitra, product manager in Data Recovery at Kroll Ontrack.

For all practical purposes, it is wise to plan for anything in line of the disaster to be damaged or lost. The problem, of course, is you never quite know where the front line will be in the next disaster so the question of where to put the back-up datacenters always remains difficult. The question of how to send messages to employees also becomes a vexing planning exercise.

“The challenge then becomes how does one communicate information to thousands of possible employees in a company setting? After all, one does rely on these very IT systems to communicate mass messages,” said Mitra.

The most obvious answer to that is SMS since the majority of phones in the market today enable text messaging.

“However, SMS should be used to augment an existing disaster recovery plan, not serve as a substitute for one,” warned Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies. “You don’t want an actual disaster to be the first attempt at measuring the success of SMS communication,” said Sobel. “Another thing to keep in mind is how responses are handled; if anyone replies to a text message, someone needs to be on the receiving end to ensure all messages are received.”

Pros and cons

Even so, for DR purposes, SMS trumps just about all other options as one of the easiest and cheapest emergency communication systems. But that doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax and let the phone carriers handle all the disaster preparations. You’ve still got some planning to do.

London-based Anthony Vigneron, IT Leader at Clifford Chance, a international law firm, provided this list of pros and cons to consider while deciding where, when and how to integrate SMS in your DR planning:


    • SMS does not depend on your internal IT systems which may have failed.
    • SMS messages are more likely to be read and not caught in spam or junk filters.
    • SMS does not require use of expensive smartphones.
    • When planning for DR scenarios, personal-liable or corporate-liable phones can be used for this service, allowing greater reach.


    • SMS should be part of an emergency communication plan but not the only method- SMS message delivery is not guaranteed and can be delayed.
    • SMS traffic takes lower priority than voice services by carriers.
    • In certain extreme national security scenarios, it is possible for the authorities to take over all services and stop delivery of SMS traffic.
    • Due to its service design as a store and forward, SMS is inherently poorly secured and should not be used to communicate sensitive information. It can also be subject to spoofing, which could cause staff to react when it is not necessary.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).