SMS alerts during emergencies – Lessons from Sri Lanka’s tsuanmi alert on 13 September 2007

Schools in Galle, some in Colombo were closed today. The newspaper headlines did not, to the extend that I read them, show any methodical movement of people to higher ground and safe spaces. They showed people who were confused, running away with their belongings and praying in places of worship. The religious may find solace in prayer, but Government cannot be hostage to the foibles of the gods. This is precisely why we were repeatedly told that disaster management plans are in place and that the next tsunami, should or when it occurred, would find Sri Lanka well prepared to meet the emergency.

This myth has already been questioned.

What I found interesting about the hours from 6 – 8.30 last night and again from around 5.30 to 7 this morning was that my primary mode of information on earthquakes and tsunami warnings came from SMS alerts. They came from two sources but from multiple phones. The two sources were Reuters news alerts on Dialog and JNW news, which I also received on Dialog. The third was the same SMSs recirculated amongst friends and colleagues.

I have about 35 incoming messages for this period and I must have sent at least twice that number to friends with mobiles I did not know were subscribes to either SMS news alerts service.

I’ve reviewed and written about the JNW SMS news service many times on this blog, and I must say that I found it to be a tad more useful than the Reuters news alerts, for which I registered free about two or three months ago. From the first alert on Reuters of an earthquake to the first tsunami warning took well over an hour on my number (I was in Colombo 7) and after that, there were a lot of SMSs with quotes from officials in the Disaster Managament Centre that weren’t terribly useful after one knew about the tsunami warning.

Far more useful may have been to send some basic guidelines about what to do, even where to go to, useful websites with updated information (the Department of Meteorology has a rather suspect website that looks as if it was done on Frontpage 98 that gives tsunami alerts, tellingly, in English and Sinhala only) or some hotline numbers (Colombo as well as regional) to call if one wanted more information.

Basic stuff that many around me didn’t know.

Chamath Ariyadasa, the Editor of JNW, has written an insightful account of his experiences last evening in responding to the tsunami warnings through SMS alerts. There’s already been a lot of discussion on the use of SMS’s in emergencies and in early warning.

I had also read about the use of cell broadcasts – so that all users of a mobile network in a given area would get SMS’s delivered in a manner that bypassed network congestion. Did this occur in the areas most vulnerable to the tsuanmi?

While I got a steady stream of SMS’s – there was no way I could tell when they were sent out. I could send out SMS’s through my phone, but by around 6.15, the voice network was clogged in Colombo 7 all the way to Nugegoda and calls down South were impossible.

Clearly, SMS is here to stay and next to radio is perhaps the most accessible means of disseminating information rapidly amongst a large population (TV doesn’t really work – needs electricity, needs to be switched on and no one lugs them around for news alerts). The tsunami warning scenario yesterday was the first time in Sri Lanka where my primary mode of news and information on an unfolding situation spread over a couple of hours was through SMS.

It may be a harbinger of things to come.

Also read:
Lessons from Nagapattinum: Post-Tsunami and the Panchayat
SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007

10 thoughts on “SMS alerts during emergencies – Lessons from Sri Lanka’s tsuanmi alert on 13 September 2007

  1. Sarvodaya together with Lirneasia had implemented several early warning systems for their villages and according to Jananjaya in Sarvodaya, it really didn’t work out because most of the time the villagers wouldn’t react to the SMS. I’m not sure but I think they gave up on SMS afterwards.

    Take note that this was not the usual SMS but a special kind of SMS that would give a strong siren-like sound and even beep when the cell-phone was switched to silent mode.

    SMS might be a good way to warn the citizens of Colombo, but villagers respond better to radio broadcasts.

    Better consult Nuwan Waidyarathna or Jananjaya for a comprehensive feedback.

  2. Rajiv was on duty on the afternoon of the 12th monitoring for any “Events of Interest” at the Sarvodaya hazard Information Hub. As usual before leaving his shift at 5:30pm he made one last check of his RSS feeds and discovered that the USGS site had posted a 7.9 earthquake. About 10 minutes later he had also received a Reuters alert on his mobile phone but indicating that there was no immediate threat. As per the Hazard Information Hub (HIH) standard procedure, he consulted with the Executive Menake, Sarvodaya Community Disaster Management Center (SCDMC) Director. Since none of the other emergency notification sites carried the bulletin and because it was low level they decided that it was not an Event of Interest (EOI) and Rajiv signed off his shift and proceeded to head home. While on the bus he received another Reuters alert as well as a telephone call from Manoj, who had taken over monitoring after Rajiv had left his shift, saying that the earthquake had been upgraded to an 8.2. Rajiv immediately got off the bus and headed back to the SCDMC. At the same time Menake had notified Mrs. Udani Mendis (Deputy Executive Director Sarvodaya) and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne (Executive Director Sarvodaya) of the EOI. The HIH Coordinator Nikuka was also notified and summoned for duty. By 6:30pm the staff including Dr. Vinya and Mrs. Mendis had gathered at the HIH and they were all connecting with local and foreign authorities to verify the EOI. Once the Government of Sri Lank had issued the “warning” the HIH began the function of creating Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) text messages and recording audio MP3 messages in preparation for dissemination of the situation to the coastal belt Communities. Dr. Vinya recorded the announcement in Sinhala; thereafter, Rajiv translated the message and recorded the same message in Tamil. The WorldSpace ANNY Network application was used to turn on all the WordSpace Addressable Satellite Radios (ASRs) on the coast and automatically switch the radio sets to the “Sarvodaya Talk” audio broadcast channel. Simultaneously the MP3 files were uploaded to the Servers in Singapore and relayed through the AsiaStar WorldSpace Satellite to the Sarvodaya Communities and District Coordinators. Upon receiving the alert, the Sarvodaya Communities and District Centers had attempted to contact the HIH but had failed because by then all Mobile, Nomadic, & Fixed Phones were jammed. Only one First-Responder from Kalutara District had managed to creep through the congested lines and acknowledge the message they received over the ASR. The HIH also found the same congestion problem when they had tried to use phone lines to contact the Communities and District Centers. As an alternative the HIH also used the Dialog Disaster and Emergency Warning Network (DEWN) to issue SMS alerts to selected First-Responders in the Communities to their J2ME trilingual applet enabled mobile phones. The acknowledgment reports later showed that the messages were received by the First-Responders. First-Responders from Thirukadalur in Ampara District and Samodhagam in Hambantota District were the only two First-Responders who managed to use the call-back feature (once again through the congestion) of the DEWN system to acknowledge receipt of the SMS as well as request further instructions from the HIH. The Sarvodaya First-Responder in Samodhagama had mentioned that they had not given evacuation orders to the Community but were vigilant and were observing for any anomalies in the Indian Ocean. Samodhagama was one of the communities that received Emergency Response Plan training through the HazInfo project. All these activities of Alerting and Notification were completed by the HIH staff and Executives before 7:20pm that evening.

  3. Many thanks Nuwan for your detailed post and I learnt a lot from it. Sharing info will help everyone get better at what we are doing.

    Does the USGS have email alerts? I am not familiar with the site. Don’t know if you know about the PTWC (Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre) email alerts ( I found them very useful this time. About 20-30 minutes after the earthquake which happened around 4.40pm they had emails out that there was a general tsunami watch in effect for the Indian Ocean region.

    My record of the SMS alerts is the following as recorded on my phone. (Pretty sure, my phone times are ok)

    No threat to Sri Lanka from tsunami from Earthquake (potential 7.9 magnitude) in southern Sumatra, Indonesia- Disaster Management Centre -Reuters

    7.9 mag earthquake occurs near Indonesia, says Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre-JNW

    An AFP alert that there was a tsunami warning issued by the Met Department went out around this time.

    Positive tsunami watch in effect for Indian Ocean region after 7.9 mag earthquake occurs near Indonesia, says Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre-JNW

    TSUNAMI WARNING for Sri Lanka’s north, east and south coasts. People asked to move away from coast-Disaster Management Centre-JNW

    TSUNAMI WARNING confirmed for Sri Lanka’s north, east and south coasts. People asked to move away from area-Met Dept -JNW

    Keerthi Ekanayake, Disaster Management Center issues warning for people to move away from beaches -Reuters

    Small tsunami hit Indonesia’s Padang, Sri Lanka expects small tsunami by 7.30- Disaster Management Center -Reuters

    If a tsunami arrives it is likely to reach island between 7.30pm and 8.45pm, says Disaster Management Centre-JNW

    Disaster management center lifts tsunami warning, says no effect; US geological survey increase quake magnitude to 8.2 -Reuters

    Disaster Management Center says tsunami warning lifted for Sri Lanka-JNW

    (As far as we know, the Disaster management center didn’t lift the warning for Sri Lanka until closer to 8.45, from what they repeatedly told us, so our alert went out after that)

    Thats what I saw the SMS services reporting. For those who want to subscribe to JNW, it is available on Mobitel (text REG to 2233) or from

  4. Chamath,

    Sorry for the delayed response … to answer your question on USGS email alerts, no they don’t issue email alerts to my knowledge but they do support RSS feeds. If you tune your RSS reader to USGS and browse it often, like you would browse your Outlook or Thunderbird for PTWC email bulletins, then you can catch the alerts on time.

    Yes I do subscribe to PTWC. As you already know the PTWC email alerts that you receive are not issued directly by PTWC but they are issued by the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) program of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), another UN body. Basically PTWC issues a bulletin to IOC; it is picked up by ITIC; then they use one or more email servers to relay the bulletins to subscribers like us. If we were to look at the same scenario from a local prospective (meaning National level) … it is similar to the Sri Lankan government issuing a bulletin and the bulletin being picked up by Sarvodaya; then using the Sarvodaya HazInfo program (synonymous with ITIC program), through the Hazard Information Hub (HIH) ICT Networks to relay the message to the Last-Mile Communities. In this case both the ITIC and HIH are what we label as “Message Relays”.

    Have you tried the GDACS: Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System ( With this system you can subscribe to receive alerts over Email and SMS. I’ll talk about the SMS … You have the option of giving two mobile numbers. Since these days I am living between China and Sri Lanka I have both my mobile numbers registered. I am still studying the GDACS message issue priority rules because I didn’t receive the Sept 12 alerts till the 13th morning in Kunming China. Then again I’m think it is China Mobile ‘s SMSC delaying it all. When registering you naturally indicate the geographic location you are in. This makes me believe they push the Alerts to mobile numbers in the areas that are immediately at risk first and then do the rest later. GDACS is a global Message Relay.

  5. Hi Nuwan, many thanks for the tip on GDACS which seems to be very useful and I received a few orange alerts on SMS and email.

    I need to study the RSS reader options a bit more. My experience with RSS feeds is that they don’t always update immediately on my reader unless I refresh, and I am not alerted to a new alert unless I keep clicking or checking, which I don’t have the time to do.

    My email, messenger combination is much more effective as there is an immediate pop up for new emails.

  6. Hello,

    I’m the administrator of the GDACS system. I just found this discussion now and would like to clarify some of your questions.

    For the event your talking about, the GDACS alerts went out within 10 minutes after receiving the information of the event, which was 18 minutes after the earthquake. Most users receive the message then within a few minutes, but this depends strongly on the telecom network. However, one can specify “do not alert at night”, which will delay the sending of the message to the morning. This is an option for staff working at headquarters, who are off duty during the night.

    GDACS is more than a global message relay. GDACS evaluates the likely consequences of strong earthquakes based on GIS and tsunami propagation models. If these models predict a likely humanitarian disasters, GDACS sends out alerts. Otherwise not.

    Feel free to contact me for more details.

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