It hasn’t taken long, but I’m a Twitter convert. I didn’t realize how useful a short-message broadcast tool could be, especially one linked to mobile phones and IM with a persistent web page. No, I don’t really care what people are eating for lunch, but as Threat Level reports, it’s become amazingly useful in dealing with the California fires.

I’ve been on more than my fair share of disaster responses, and would have killed for a tool like this. The ability for people to register their wellness and location in one central location, as supported by Twitter and the Red Cross, is simply astounding. Tracking people and families is one of the most difficult aspects of disaster response. At Katrina we had to do things like pack entire families (of 11) into a single ambulance if one person needed medical care, because you never knew where someone would end up and if they’d be able to find their loved ones again.

Cell phones were the first technology tool of recent days to really impact emergency services and crisis response. Remember the days when you’d have to drive to the next exit and find an open gas station to report a highway car accident? At Katrina those with cell phones were essentially 100% likely to find their families, while those without waited weeks or months for word.

IM and email showed themselves as essential tools on 9/11. It was through email, an asynchronous communications channel, that I was first able to get word from my friends in New York (I think Chris Pepper was the first to give me an update). Once the initial wave of panic ended, I was able to communicate via Instant Message long before the phone lines freed up. Text messaging is also often more reliable, since it’s asynchronous and on some phone systems uses dedicated channels that aren’t as degraded by large call volumes.

Twitter is now on the list- it combines many of the best factors of email, IM, and cell phones. You get asynchronous communications that can queue and still deliver within a reasonable time, persistence via a web page, broadcast to large groups, private messaging, and burst traffic that doesn’t require as much bandwidth. Twitter also leverages multiple channels- a key factor in any emergency communications tool- IM, web, and mobile phone.

Next time I deploy, Twitter will be where I send my family to track me.

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