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Application of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data as a Communication Tool for Humanitarian Relief

Info: 8174 words (33 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Information Systems

Project Topic

Application of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data as a communication tool for Humanitarian Relief.


Detailed Research Question

Can Unstructured supplementary service (USSD) of a GSM device be implemented/leveraged as a means of Humanitarian relief response service application for internally displaced victims without the use of internet?


Problem Statement

Prolonged internal conflicts have gained a lot of attention as it becomes deadlier within various territories. Its negative impacts on civilians has increased tremendously in the past decade. In 2013 over 3.5 million people were displaced in Syria alone with about 2.5 million civilians who became refugees according to the press release by the Armed conflict survey in 2015. Millions of people have been affected directly and indirectly by conflicts worldwide. According to the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan,  it is increasingly true that “the main aim … [of conflicts] … is the destruction not of armies but of civilians and entire ethnic groups.” Humanitarian aids and efforts are stretched thin by the perpetual conflicts and wars in today’s work. These troubling factors has made it necessary to develop more alternative methods to impact humanitarian assistance to rebuild countries affected after the war has ended.

The intention behind using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD/Feature codes) as a system application for humanitarian relief without using internet data is simply derived from its already existing use by mobile network companies (MNO) to provide services to their clients such as:

  • Credit recharge (Mobile Top up)
  • Checking SIM card balance inquiry
  • Subscribing to new mobile services
  • Deliver passwords, PINs and OTPs (One Time Passwords)
  • Mobile Banking Transactions

The tasks above are achieved whenever a user dials certain alphanumeric characters from a mobile smartphone which automatically sends a message to the server in a back and forth exchange of sequence of data with a real-time response received in a matter of seconds. This technology if appropriately leveraged could undertake the task of providing humanitarian relief services with the absence of internet connectivity as a solution to mobile humanitarian Aid.

USSD or quick codes are featured on every mobile phone by default from phone manufacturers to facilitate a two-way exchange of data in real time between users and their network service providers which in many cases has been leveraged alongside short messaging service. Its application has been featured all across the globe from menu content services such as sports, location based services and many more. Banking industries have taken its advantages in developing countries such as Nigeria as a means for customers to bypass internet protocols as a means of transferring money.

The audience for this research study are victims of internally displaced victims whom have lost their homes due to humanitarian crises including natural and man-made disaster and are in desperate need of any sort of humanitarian relief rescue.

The fundamental aim and dedication of humanitarian relief is saving lives, relieve suffering, and preserve the human dignity. It should be noted that Humanitarian Aid is separate from development aid, which seeks an approach to address the current socioeconomic elements which may have led to an underlying conflict.

The adverse effects of Disastrous events both manmade and natural cannot be over emphasized especially in less developing nations, it has led to individuals and families losing their lives, homes, property, jobs, and has left some economies unfortunately weakened.

In numerous situations of disaster people have been documented to be either missing or dead due to a barrier in communication which hinders the efforts of logistics assistance including search and rescue parties. Among those in need of immediate relief are refugees of war, victims of natural disasters, famine, homeless and famine.

Established research has suggested that published literature regarding alternative methods of communication to enhance the efforts of disaster relief in rescuing victims are very limited and as such has prompted the purpose of this research to bridge the gap by proposing to the use of unstructured supplementary service data as a communication tool between victims and humanitarian relief organizations to facilitate aid and rescue to those in need.

Detailed Research Question

Can Unstructured supplementary service (USSD) of a GSM device be implemented/leveraged as a means of Humanitarian relief response service application for internally displaced victims without the use of internet?


The objectives the detailed research question seeks to answer are as follows:

  • To review existing literature on Humanitarian Aid disaster relief and current ICT tools used by Humanitarian organizations.
  • To critically evaluate various unstructured supplementary service data and its applications in existing contexts.
  • To design, conduct and collect primary and secondary data for the purpose of analysis
  • To demonstrate how efficient and useful USSD application can be in humanitarian relief context.
  • To propose useful approaches of improving humanitarian disaster relief communication with USSD application
  • To conduct participatory questionnaire to determine the ease of use of USSD codes as a communication tool for humanitarian relief.
  • To design, test and demonstrate a USSD application functionality.

Primary Research Plan:

Analyzing and the development of an unstructured supplementary service data system requires analysis of the process to be to enable an error-free and precise service. The system must operate as necessitated to enable its potential users to learn and understand its general usability and functionality. The analysis identifies the system’s objectives and limitations to which designers must conform. The point of analyzing is to transform the system’s major inputs into a structured specification.

Personal Oral interviews as an empirical method of data collection to individuals in order to collect information with the aim of facilitating and understanding what this electronic service has to offer. Reliable information can be collected from interviews which can enable the researcher determine based on the question posed to find solutions or possibly alter the service application to suit better needs. Interviewing a representative of a humanitarian relief worker can help determine the type services they would need to have on this service application.

Questioners will be handed out to offices and home addresses of people to provide a feedback and share their personal views about the research question because the feasibility of such a project depends highly on potential customers/clients.

Designing and executing a live server. At this level, the researcher’s intention is to recognize the processing efficiency of the server, the data required and the size of storage capacity needed to perform daily operations. Resources processed in one session will become the approximate determinant of required resources for multiple sessions. This test is meant to ascertain or determine how much the data host can handle.

Designing, planning, developing, testing, deploying and monitoring the USSD service application. This service is to be designed in such a way that it will provide users with an itemized menu list upon sent request. Any flaw, error, and redundancy detected as well as efficiency, accuracy, quality of output and processing speed conceived during experimentation and testing phase shall be very vital to the research objective.

A final experiment will be run in order to test the overall efficiency and capacity of the entire process model. Flaws, Errors, and inaccuracies will be noted, total resources consumed within a single session, flexibility, reliability and accuracy of process or interaction involved in the entire solution life cycle.

Literature Review

This chapter focuses on the existing literature in the area of research. The major topics to cover are as follows:

Disaster which will present an overview of disaster management and its life cycle and furthermore identifies where disaster response which incorporates activities such as emergency Operations and SAR Operations fits within this cycle.

Disaster relief such as search and rescue operations, this stage will present examine the existing methods search and rescue operations and how it has advanced with the alternative ICT tools for communication. (3). USSD service applications, this will focus on the current operations of USSD and how it can be linked with search and rescue operations.

The word disaster(“bad star”) originates from an astrological approach in ancient Greece which calamity is faulted by unfavorable position of the planets.

“A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing a widespread human, material, economic and environmental losses that exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (WHO, 1998). Disasters are rated by their event of tragic magnitude, lasting legacy of destruction, death toll and of course the economic cost in damage of property.

Contemporary academia has suggested that disaster occur as a result mismanaged risk. These risks are the component of vulnerability and hazards. Usually hazardous events that occur in regions with low vulnerability are disregarded as disaster which is also the case in unpopulated areas.

In the occurrence of disaster, less developed nations are more on the receiving end because they experience the greatest lost.  Statistics indicates about 96 percent of the death toll triggered by hazardous events occur in less developed nations, also the losses incurred as a result of these events are about 20 times exceeding that of developed nations. (Quarantelli E.L. 1998)

Disaster can be classified as either manmade which is instigated human activities or natural which is caused by the forces of nature such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Fig 1.1 below gives a better insight:

Fig 1.1 Disaster classified according to category. Image source: (HRBC journal, 2014)

Disaster research has been in existence for over 50 years due to the establishment of the Disaster research Centre (DRD) at Ohio state university in 1963. Studies based on research at the DRC has suggested that all disasters are instigated by man, the logic behind this is that human interference before the occurrence of a hazard plays a fundamental role in preventing the development of a disaster. This implies that the lack of application of counter disaster measures ultimately results to disaster. (Blaikie et al 2003). Hazards are usually also classified into natural and manmade however, developing nations suffer more from complex disasters which the root cause cannot be identified. Some disasters due to their nature have been known to introduce secondary disasters which multiplies the impact. This can be seen in the fig 1.0 below where a hurricane caused a flood in the New Orleans United states.

Fig 1.0: This image shows a significant level flooding as a result of Hurricane Katrina (2005) in New Orleans, United States of America and the failure of the city’s flood protection systems.

Another example is an earthquake that could lead to a tsunami which in turn increases the extent of damage by creating a pattern for flood.

Disaster management planning is built around the disaster management cycle model as shown in fig 1.2. The model comprises of four stages – Risk reduction (Mitigation), Readiness (Preparedness), Response, Recovery/Reconstruction. 

Fig 1.2 a typical disaster management cycle with its four major components

At any of these four stages, remotely sensed data can be very useful in studying the phenomena of a particular stage which will enable the action of authorities in terms of decision making.

Mitigation/Risk reduction: this stands for preventive measure taken in order in order to reduce or contain the impacts of a disaster. Risk reduction comes into play as an attempt to prevent hazards from further progression into disasters or managing the disaster if it ever occurs. The mitigation stage is much differentiated from the other stages as its center of interest is focused on long-term approaches for curtailing, limiting or eliminating risk. “Minimizing the effects of disaster. Examples: building codes and zoning; vulnerability analyses; public education” (Himayatullah K, 2008).

Readiness: this stage accepts that there are leftover risk present for communities which necessitates the measures that must be taken to respond to hazards in order to reduce its impact. This involves: educating the community about hazards in general and its impacts, and the type of measures to take in order to minimize the impacts. Training of emergency responders to hazards within the community; observation, close monitoring, observation and implementing danger warning systems for hazards; formulation of strategic response plans; and encouraging community resilience in personal preparedness which includes basic activities like learning first aid, keeping a first aid emergency kit and maintaining a plan for evacuation just in case (Ronan, et al 2005).

At this stage (preparedness), emergency managers design the necessary course of action in a disastrous event.

Measures usually include:

  • A proper chain of command involving a channel of communication.
  • Development of a disaster incident command and training and coordination with agencies that share similar aim.
  • Training and practice of emergency services
  • Development of evacuation plans and relief shelters.
  • Keeping an inventory, and maintaining an upkeep of stock and equipment.

One of the requirements of an efficient and effective measure of preparedness is the development of a territorial wide doctrine for the purpose of containing emergencies which is coordinated through an emergency operations center.

Another measure is by building up a volunteer response committee among local population within a community.

Response: This refers to the efforts in play in order to minimize the hazards developed as a result of disaster. The response stage involves the mobilization of what is called the first wave responders which typically includes emergency services such as nearest police, fire fighters and hospital ambulance. Depending on the nature of disaster, the first wave may request for a backup of secondary emergency teams such as search and rescue operations.

Furthermore, NGOs such as Red cross could provide immediate relief such as first aid. A good practiced emergency relief plan leads to an effective coordination of relief and rescue efforts in order to achieve maximum output with limited resources.

Rules of three (Survival)

The significance of this rule comes in handy especially after putting into consideration the survival profile of the victim given the situation at hand. This rule is applied to displaced persons in the wilderness or a disaster scenario either natural or man-made, such as earthquakes in an urban area or internally displaced refugees of war.

Rules of three (Survival) is often quoted as:

Air- 3 Minutes without breathable air, in icy water or bleeding

Water- 3 days without drinkable water

Food- 3 weeks without edible food

Environment- 3 hours in an extreme environment (hot or cold).

The efforts of search and rescue operations begin at an early stage depending on the state of emergency. Studies have suggested that it is highly likely that victims affected by disaster depending on the nature of disaster e.g. access to drinkable water, breathable air, and injuries may all die within the first 72 hours of impact. Search and rescue operations usually retire after a week of major incident allowing it to progress into the Recovery stage. Medical teams play important roles in the direct phase by providing immediate response and indirect phases such as post trauma therapy, infections and diseases. (Gregory J, 2006).

In cases of disaster people have often felt the compelling reason to volunteer which could either prove helpful or sabotage the efforts of humanitarian relief and emergency operations. An untrained individual volunteer may decide to act on impulse in a disastrous situation which in turn could disrupt the efficiency of coordinated agencies. Such volunteers are often referred to as ‘disaster tourists’ due to the fact that they storm into disastrous events without coordination, preparation or at least informing anyone about their intentions.

On the other hand, trained volunteers under the supervision on an emergency relief agency, such as search and rescue operations may prove very useful in disastrous events.

Recovery: This stage aims to reinstate the affected area of disaster back to its original state. Its main focus is different from the response stage. This stage deals with effective decision making that seeks to address matters as soon as immediate needs have been met. The primary concern of this stage is effectively channeling recovery efforts into actions that involves the repair of important infrastructures to reinstitute employment, rebuilding damaged properties, restoration of basic services etc.

One of the most significant aspects of an effective and efficient recovery is recognizing what is generally referred as a ‘Window Opportunity’ which is taking advantage of the right set of circumstances to implement mitigative/risk reduction measures as studies have suggested that individuals recently affected by disaster have a high probability rate of accepting these changes. As soon as the threat to human life has been eliminated or subsided then this stage (recovery) begins to furthermore ease the situation for the general populace. Reconsidering the location and structural material of damaged property must be put in view during reconstruction.

In some extreme of epidemics, diseases, war, or famine could last for a long time, sometimes even more than a year e.g. The West African epidemic of Ebola of 2014 which is still the largest record of Ebola outbreak in the world. “The virus killed more than 11,300 people before it was declared to be over in 2016” (Edition.cnn.com, 2017).

Some situations such as famine may warrant recovery to be taken care of at home which is usually planned by buying and storing food and other basic necessities which shall be consumed at regular intervals.



The standard approximate timespan of rescue, relief and rehabilitation is usually one week, three months and five years accordingly.

Rescue operations begins immediately with the help of local inhabitants within affected area of e.g. a flood, earthquake or tsunami before support is followed up by trained professionals from the Urban search and rescue operations of the governments. These operations are open to support and reinforcements by non-governmental organizations.

Furthermore, if the incident warrants international aid, they arrive within 24 to 48 hours depending on the severity and relationship with the nation.


Survival rate of the missing and trapped victims usually keeps this phase ongoing for about 48 to 72 hours until the resources allocated for search and rescue is channeled towards other priorities. The search and rescue operations continue even after three days but it’s intensity is reduced due to limited resources and other prevailing priorities. Individuals have often been rescued by disaster witnesses and bystanders.


The severity of the situation is the determinant of this stage however, it usually lasts between one to three months in most cases of natural disasters such as earthquakes. This stage takes place promptly after the rescue stage. Its primary focus is the provision of basic needs to victims and also maintain a social balance within the community. Another important aspect of this stage is the thorough assessment of human and property losses which aids in the allocation of resources by the relief agencies.



Rehabilitation/reconstruction stage primary aim is to restore the communities to the pre-disaster status. At this stage, the social and economic structure is revitalized. This stage typically begins at the end of the previous stage (relief) and could last for several years depending on extent of damage suffered. The Long-term aim is to reconstruct a safer and sustainable life for the community while the short-term objective involves restoration of helplines, reconstruction of accommodating units etc. Studies have indicated that these efforts are unsustainable without the cooperation of government, community and non-government organizations.

This means disaster management lifecycle can be divided into various stages which depends on the perspective of each definition.

The limits of how far USSD codes can go cannot be overemphasized as it unlocks the digital world of endless possibilities once properly leveraged for a specific function by an industry or a company.

“Moreover, today’s vouchers based on every telecommunication retailers provides specific recharge to their customers only. Also, today’s Survey can be given only using smartphones. So, there is an idea to give a survey using USSD real-time application” (Suraj Date et al., 2017).

Since the penetration of mobile phones in developing countries such as Nigeria, USSD codes have been used to enhance mobile-commerce by exploring marketing capabilities and offering various services to users such as bank transfers, satellite television subscription, checking account balance etc. Companies and industries have realized it is an effective way to reach out to customers in the developing world due to poor and lack of internet is some areas.

Although the most common uses have been;

•    Balance inquiries from network providers

• Recharge phone network account balance as used by Lyca mobile in the UK

• To deliver OTPs (one-time passwords) for banking transactions that require sensitive data

• To subscribe to a new service provided by the network provider

Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter are known to leverage USSD codes to provide real-time updates to their users.

“Transactions are initiated through a single-session USSD short-code entered in a specific syntax. The syntax involves the symbols “*” and “#” interleaved with numbers representing a phone number, personal identification number (PIN), and amount to be transferred. Confirmation receipts are received by SMS. ” Unstructured supplementary service data exists on every mobile phone by default to for the purpose of real-time communication from the user to service providers (Indrani Medhi et al., 2009).

The use of USSD has become a massive game changer in the world of Mobile commerce in developing countries and even beyond due to a number of reasons:

• USSD codes are accessible over any mobile phone regardless of sophistication and affordability.

• It has been approximated to be 7 times faster than short messaging service (SMS).

• It offers a two-way data exchange sequence of a real-time connection for short periods of time making it a secure and reliable service.

• Users receive instant feedback without relying on the internet.

Finetech analysts, Juniper Research in 2016 findings reveals that over 2 billion smartphone users will have used their phones for banking purposes by the end of 2021 relatively compared to the 1.2 billion recorded in 2016. The driving force behind mobile banking innovation and expansion is directly relative to the adoption of banking services offered to customers for them to manage their finances.

Zenith International Bank plc, a financial institution in Nigeria has tapped deeply into unstructured supplementary data by allowing users/potential customers open a new account only by dialing *966*0# which then automatically generates an account number which can be used after a short visit from the financial institution.

ICT for Disaster Management/ICT for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Preparedness

The ever-increasing scenarios of disaster both natural and man-made has demanded a growing interest in various means of integrating information through technology to improve on the retrieval of information, emergency response time, and channel resources to where it is most in need. Existing and newer technologies such as USSD, geospatial intelligence, drones, big data, robotics AI, social media, and the internet of things all share significant promise in ways and alternatives that nationals and humanitarian aid agencies can respond to disastrous situations. (Professor Murayama H, 2015)

The analyses of potential risk and identification of methods that could prevent, reduce or prepare for emergencies are the most important steps to put into consideration towards reducing impacts of a disaster. The integration of ICT can play a fundamental role in pin pointing potential areas of vulnerability and the general populous that could be at risk by providing a referenced geographical analysis e.g. a geographic information systems and communication. The significance of prior disaster warning in time to mitigate its effects on the population and environment cannot be overemphasized e.g. even though the destruction of property cannot be avoided in most cases, developed nations have always had better chances in mitigating disaster impacts when compared to less developed countries due to the implementation of more effective and efficient disaster warning information systems which is not the case for developing countries. “A warning can be defined as the communication of information about a hazard or threat to a population at risk, in order for them to take appropriate actions to mitigate any potentially negative impacts on themselves, those in their care and their property” (Samarajiva et al., 2005).

Not all hazards ultimately result into disasters. In most cases hazards may not be avoided however, their negative impacts and effects on the environment or population can be mitigated once identified in its early stages. The ultimate objective of a prior warning is to ensure that in every possible way that a hazard does not transition into a disaster. The warnings must be communicated and expressed in such a way that makes it absolutely clear about what is at stake and the necessary steps to mitigate risks and potential impacts.

A successful warning is determined by the necessary action taken against it by society by mitigating disaster impacts by staying away from vulnerable areas and evacuation. Prior warning enables individuals take necessary actions that certainly will prove useful in saving lives, reducing suffering and minimizing damage to property. This is usually achieved through raising awareness about disaster management.

Disaster warnings are effectively delivered through the help communication networks and devices privately owned. With the introduction of newer information communication tools every day, it enables individuals receive personalized warnings regarding particular situations which provides the opportunity to minimize the foreseen economic doom and ultimately save lives.

Disaster warning is a system and not just a single technology which does all the work of detecting vulnerable population, identifying and risk assessment of hazard etc. (Samarajiva et al., 2005).

Key players in disaster warning

The following are the major key players in a disaster management process as outlined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) specifically in a disaster warning;

  • Local governments: must have a reasonable knowledge regarding type of hazards to which their environment and people are exposed to. With this knowledge, it means that local communities must play very active roles in the maintenance. Furthermore, they must understand the information they receive in order to act on it efficiently and effectively in order to engage, instruct and advice its inhabitants for a chance to reduce their losses and maintain their safety.
  • National governments as law and policy makers of their countries they are liable for implementing effective strategies that will enable the facilitation of timely warnings against hazards and ultimately disasters in addition to the existing technical systems already in practice. The response to warnings must be directed towards the most vulnerable of population in order to address the exact needs of the macro and micro level players. Providing support to local governments to enhance operational and functional responsibilities is a significant factor in interpreting an early warning into risk mitigation endeavors.
  • International bodies play important roles by providing the necessary support to nationals during the early warning stage and aftermath which encourages the exchange of information between nationals to facilitate the support. The type of support may come in different forms such as technical advice, policy and organizational support to establish the operational capabilities of international agencies for timely warning practices.
  • Media the significance of media activities in disaster warning includes increasing the consciousness and awareness level of the situation to the general public by disseminating early warnings. The media often has been the vital link between the organization providing the warning and the general population.
  • The scientific community plays a vital role in providing important technical and scientific data to aid governments and communities in the development of timely warning systems. The criticality of their expertise is used for the analyses of risks that a community may encounter from a hazard, facilitate the exchange of information, translating scientific and technical input into useful information, and communicate comprehended warnings to those at risks.
  • Nongovernment organizations commonly known as NOGs play a very important role in creating and raising awareness among people, agencies and organizations directly or indirectly involved in early warning systems and its implementation especially within community level. Furthermore, NGOs play another critical role in advocacy to ensure that early warning remains within the policy framework of the government.
  • Private sector one of the roles the private sector plays is the development of early warning capacity within its own organization. The private sector is regarded very crucial due to the fact that they are usually better equipped with sophisticated ICT tools which they use in the implementation of IT solutions. The private sector has a vast amount of resources that enables it to provide professional services such as technical know-how/support and also the donation of goods and services, particularly to aid response elements of early warnings.
  • Communities, must be aware of potential hazard and the negative impacts they are likely to be exposed to, which gives provides them with the opportunity to take precise measures in containing the threat to life and damage to property. This makes the geographical location and make up of a community/society is the major determinant factor of selecting the disaster on which shall be focused upon. E.g. for settlements that live off the coast must be educated and be taught preparedness for a tsunami disaster while mountainous regions must be educated and be prepared about timely early warning systems against landslides. Their contribution into the design system coupled with their response ability is what determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards and disaster.
  • Regional Organizations are supposed to provide special and extensive understanding and counselling to back up national endeavors in order to sustain functional capabilities of nationals that share a similar geographical environment. These intuitions are fundamental to connecting international capacity to specific needs of various countries also in promoting effective timely warning systems among adjacent nationals.

Channels Utilized for Disaster Warning These are some of the interactive media channels- both old and new– which are efficiently employed for disaster warning reasons. Depending on the type of disaster, the environment affected, economic stability of the community, and political make-up of the country. Some could be more effective and efficient the others which however depends on the nature of the disaster suffered at hand and environment which is affected. Some of these mediums could be used in conjunction with others.

Radio This is one of the most traditional mediums that is still in use today for disaster warning. Radio services can be leveraged to disseminate important information about disaster by sending sending signals from the broadcasting station (transmitter) to its targeted audience (receiver) in an audible format. This channel is most efficient within rural society and less developed countries especially communities where the television density is very low. The major downside of the radio service is that it is usually inactive at night as some stations do not operate 24hrs which is a reason to switch off the radio device. A media study about disaster related behavior in Bangladesh suggests that the use of of easy comprehendible warning language through a radio transmitter can drastically minimize the potential death toll of disastrous cyclone. The research furthermore recommended that it is the responsibilities of the authorities to develop and structure innovative timely warning systems in an easy generally acceptable language via the radio at least 48 hours before.

Professor Sahid Ullah led the research and he suggested as part of his recommendation that a significant aspect of the procedure is by boosting the communal confidence in media broadcasting as a result of poor shelter quality and self-evacuation being the lead causes of mortality in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster (Sahid Ullah, 2003). That led to many radio companies contemplate the development of new digital radio systems with the innovation of reacting to emergency broadcast channels even when switched off. The only set back of the system is that the development and introduction of such receivers in an analogue environment is likely within 5 to 10 years as the device maybe although it would be innovative and simpler (Dunnette, 2006).

Television is a very significant communication tool used to disseminate visual and audible information in order to warn the general populous before and during a disaster. In pre and ongoing disaster, emergency officials collaborate with television media houses to broadcast plans and procedures that will save lives and limit property damage. Emergency officials with the right authorities are known to prepare special warning lectures and conferences by collaborating with television networks to broadcast against an impending disaster in order to keep the general public prepare against it. They furthermore, have the privilege to also communicate evacuation plans during an ongoing disaster to promote safety (Ragusa G, 2017).


Telephones (Mobile or Fixed) Phones as telecommunication devices are very important role players in disaster warning systems weather impending, post or on going disaster phase. There are numerous occasions in which telephones have helped saved many lives before the occurrence of a disaster, one of the most popular incidence was the 2004 Tsunami in the coastal village of Nallavadu, India in South Asia. A timely warning using telecommunication systems of a telephone helped save 100% of the population which was 3600 in total including three neighboring societies.

There are countries who practice the use of a mechanism called telephone trees to warn their communities about potential hazard. On the telephone tree someone from the community acts as a node. It is now the representative’s responsibility to to a number of phone calls usually four to five numbers in an already prepared list to warn the community about the impending danger. This strategy ensures an early and timely warning against a disaster. However, it has two major limitations. Its adoption rate in rural areas is unsatisfactory which places those areas even at more risk. Despite its high increase on the global market there are still some places in South Asia and West Africa where a phone is considered a luxury device. Another setback is the network traffic congestion during the event of a disaster which leads to the incompletion of many phone calls.

Short Message Service (SMS, ‘SMSes’, or ‘txts’) is a text based messaging service application of most digital telephones (Mobile and fixed). At the end of 2010 it was estimated to be the most utilized data application with an estimated number of 3.5 billion users worldwide which at the time was approximately 80% of mobile subscribers. It allows the exchange of short texts between mobile devices and even some landline telephones. It was reported during hurricane Katrina in 2005 most families were not able to reach out to their loved ones on telephone landlines as a result of network traffic congestion. However, they discovered that it was easier to use SMS in such cases and this is because SMS operates on a different band with phone calls which allows texts to be sent and received even while telephone lines are congested. Furthermore, SMS allows a text message to be sent to multiple individuals or groups at once (Ahonen T, 2011).

Cell Broadcasting/Cell Information (CB) is a messaging service featured on every GSM device because it a requirement by the ETS’s (European Telecommunications Standards) which is part of the GSM standard. It is otherwise known as SMS-CB (Short Messaging Service-Cell Broadcast). This technology is only known to allow as many as 15 pages of up to 93 characters to be broadcasted to mobile cells within a similar area code (the broadcast could be from a cell phone to an entire network). It was designed as a message delivery service to multiple users within a particular geographical location. The technology was first demonstrated in 1997 at France in Paris. Many mobile network companies utilize this service to inform the mobile user of their antenna cell area code. Majority of wireless devices these days support the feature of cell broadcasting and is used in disaster warning systems by sending out a public warning text as a push service to a group of individuals located within an area code. This could mean the total number of people subscribed to a particular network in an entire country. The use of Cell broadcasting for emergency reasons is accompanied by four significant points:

  • Implementing CB will incur no extra cost as it is already part of the existing networks infrastructure and GSM devices which means the need to write software codes, construct towers or use cables is completely unnecessary.
  • Unlike telephone calls, Cell broadcasting does not get affected by network congestion which makes it highly useful in the event of a disaster as it does not add to any traffic load.
  • One hundred million individuals across countries and continents in just about 60 seconds.
  • The reason why it maintains a geo specific architecture is to enable governmental disaster organizations inform certain neighbouring areas if there is a need for evacuation or not in order to minimize panic and traffic jam.

The major drawback to cell broadcasting is that there are specific users that may find extreme difficulties in reading the warning in English language which is the case for a significant amount of the Asian-Pacific population. This makes it very significant to deliver the warning messages in the general most acceptable local language available to the community which still does not solve 100% of the problem. (Clothier, 2005). This reflects to the semi-literate to illiterate people within those areas that cannot read or can hardly read texts even in their local language. In Netherlands, the governments cabinet suggested the use of CB for emergency timely warnings in the early 2000s which led Vodafone, KPN and Telfort to become the first telecommunication networks in the world to provide operator warning systems using CB which is managed by the government. The development came to a conclusion in 2012 and was launched nationally as NL-Alert in November that same year.

Its first practical use was in December of 2012 Tolbert large fire outbreak while the second use was in 2013. However, at the end of 2014 it was used forty-five times. (Crisis.nl. 2017).

Satellite Radio: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defined Satellite radio as a broadcasting satellite service. For a nationwide radio broadcasting, it uses 2.3GHz S band within North America while for the rest of the world it uses 1.4Ghz L band. In 2002 this technology was inducted in the space technology hall of fame. As a digital radio, it receives broadcast signal transmission via communication satellite which in fact covers a more extended geographical area such as nationwide coverage when compare to the conventional radio. Regardless of what appears to be obstruction such as tall buildings or underground tunnels, it doesn’t affect the transmission of satellite radio as long as a line of sight exists between the antenna and the satellite. This technology is a fundamental key player in terms of disaster recovery and warning phases. Satellite radios ability to function beyond locations not that are not covered by conventional radio services is what gives it have been affected by disaster. (Jain, 2002).

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has identified various radio communication media that can be used in disaster-related situations (see Table above).

Internet, Apps, and Email: However useful these maybe in the role of disaster warning, their application is as limited as their penetration within a geographical location. These features are enjoyed better by developed countries as majority of households and offices are connected to the internet via Wi-Fi which is not the case of under developed countries. Studies has suggested that only a very small percentage of the population in developing countries actually use internet services and applications which is also not on a regular basis. This makes it very difficult for these services to play significant roles in disaster related activities without internet facilities. In 1997, the participants for the international conference ‘Harnessing the Internet for Disasters and Epidemics’ brought about issues impacting negatively on their ability to utilize the internet for improving and refining crises management. Major issues included governments laws regarding the exchange of information, the exceptional cost of technology itself, and the unavailability of application content in local indigenous language. “The most significant obstacle impeding widespread Internet usage was the widening gap between those with unlimited access and those, whose access to information and new technologies was restricted by economic, linguistic, cultural or administrative constraints”, (Putnam, 2002).

Search and rescue (SAR) as the term implies involves the act of searching and providing first hand assistance to individuals that maybe faced with imminent danger, threat or distress in a disaster scenario. SAR is a field on its own which comprises of other exceptional sub-fields, these special fields are determined as a result of the environment, terrain and background the search is being conducted. Typically, these should include: Urban search and rescue, Combat search and rescue, Sea, Air, Island search and rescue, Mountain rescue and Rescue Dogs.

The UN created an organization called the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) to foster and facilitate the promotion of information exchange between national SAR organizations. The article of United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) article 98 covers the duties of rendering support. UNCLOS also known as the law of the Sea convention is an international agreement which took place between the year 1973 and 1982. This law clearly establishes responsibilities and rights between countries in respect of their use and engagement of the oceans across the world. These responsibilities represent specific guidelines for business operations and the management of mineral resources of the sea (UN, 2009).

Urban search and rescue (USAR), which is sometimes referred to as HUSAR (Heavy Search and Rescue) is the identification, location and the rescue of individuals from damaged and collapsed entrapments or other similar industrial infrastructure (Mark Y, et all 2000). Studies has shown that an estimated number of about 3.1 million people have lost their lives including the destruction of property estimated to be worth about 3.9 Billion British Pound sterling within the last 2 decades as a result urban disaster. These losses result from heavy infrastructural damage on individuals. USAR has implemented more effective, efficient and alternative methods of improving search and rescue operations due to the increasing number of disaster (Lau K 2009).

Natural disasters such as earthquakes have been the primary cause of HUSAR operations however, terror attacks and severe harsh weather such hurricanes in the case of hurricane Katrina (2005) in New Orleans have prompted the deployment and delivery of these resources. USAR personnel are highly trained in their area of speciality and furthermore, have received additional training in infrastructural damages associated with damaged gas, pipes, electrical wirings and related hazards as the teams are usually multi-disciplinary agencies ranging from fire services, the police and medical emergency responders (Miller, B 2012).


“The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (A historical perspective)”. United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Retrieved 30 April 2009.

Crisis.nl. (2017). NL-Alert | Crisis.nl. [online] Available at: http://www.crisis.nl/nl-alert [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].


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