The Best Way to Contact Loved Ones During a Disaster

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Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Women desperate to hear from loved ones can't enter the scene at Boylston and Massachusetts Avenue after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15.
As the details of the Boston Marathon bombing emerged Monday, I noticed that one of my coworkers was speedily typing, texting, and monitoring all his lines of communication. It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on: a Massachusetts native, he was checking up on his friends and family.

I could easily relate: Six years ago today, I was doing the exact same thing.

I was an instructor at Virginia Tech when the 2007 shootings happened. That morning, after the university canceled classes and the police put the school on lockdown, my thoughts went to my 93 students, and I spent the remainder of the day tracking them down, either through e-mails, phone calls, or -- in a few heart-stopping instances -- by finding them quoted in news reports. One by one, I checked them off a master list made up of all my class lists.

Monday, it was easy to see the communications change that those six years had wrought. On April 16, 2007, I spent my day writing e-mails and tying up land lines. On April 15, 2013, people instinctively went to their cell phones, quickly overwhelming the local cell network. As with Hurricane Sandy last year, wireless carriers advised people to text rather than call, as it ties up less network bandwidth. A Sprint representative, speaking with Salon, noted that the average wait time for a phone call during an emergency is 180 seconds, during which someone with fast thumbs could send dozens of texts.
And texts weren't the only low-bandwidth tools that Bostonians could use to get the word out. According to reports, many people on the scene used Instagram and Twitter to notify their social groups that they were safe.

Google also helped get the word out, rapidly launching a "Person Finder" for the disaster, offering a central clearinghouse for information about people who may have been affected. As of press time today, it contains 5,400 records, offering a limited, but effective, checklist of people who were located along the marathon route. Google originally created the program for the 2010 Haiti earthquake and occasionally sets up pages for other disasters, based on their severity.

Given how quickly cell networks were overwhelmed after the Boston bombs went off, it's clear that there's still room for improvement when it comes to disaster notification. On the other hand, as the events of the day also demonstrated, the myriad tools now available for reaching out to loved ones are useful for more than sending out quick snapshots and pithy commentary: In an instant, they can also provide comfort, love and reassurance.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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