Why any Emergency Alert System that has a Smartphone App Panic Button that only uses the Internet is a Death waiting to Happen

Our school has been researching various emergency alert systems so that if an emergency happens, we have a manner that staff can quickly and reliably communicate to our administration that there is a problem, and that we can then quickly send out messages as appropriate to our students.

Most emergency alert systems have a smartphone app with some form of panic button.  This is great, except for the fact that these systems all only use the phone’s internet connection, and if that internet connection is not working, then they fail.

Here are two quick scenarios that demonstrate the problem.  The first is very real.  On our campus, we are in a neighborhood known to have drive-by shootings.  My smartphone most of the time is connected to our wi-fi, but as I move around the campus, there are places where my phone has such a poor wi-fi connection that nothing goes through, but the connection is not so bad that it switches to my phone carrier’s internet.  And one of these parts of campus is where we have had students get into a verbal altercation with some neighbors, and there were threats of gun violence.   While nothing happened at that time, we know it could.  And if I was there, trying to de-escalate the situation, but I wanted to have something I could quickly do on my phone to say there was a problem, the panic button would fail me with any system that only used the Internet as its communication.

Another scenario that is quite real is when someone is not by any wi-fi and they have no Internet connection at all, and they have a problem that they need to hit a panic button on.  Again, this would put that person’s life at risk, because no matter how good the rest of the system is, this weakest link of the communication chain would cause huge problems.

So what is the solution?  It is actually rather simple.  Emergency Alert Systems should have a backup of using SMS (text messaging).  We know that during Hurricane Katrina, while most cell functions were not working, SMS still was.  This is described well in the article “SMS does SOS” (https://fcw.com/articles/2006/04/03/sms-does-sos.aspx)

SMS only allows for short messages, but I’m sure a well-engineered solution could encode a client to server set of messages that could be sent out (probably looking like gibberish to humans), if the internet connection fails.  It could even send out a human readable version also, if the system was well designed.  And it could include GPS data, as long as the app was well designed.

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