The problem with mobiles in emergencies…

Is that they often don’t work.

This photo of my mobile phone’s screen was taken around two and a half hours after a powerful bomb rocked Nugegoda, a suburb in Colombo, killing around 17 and injured over 30. It was Sri Lanka’s second bomb for the day. I live around 3 minutes away from the place where the bomb went off in Nugegoda and had just returned home when I heard the sound of the explosion.

Notice the icon between battery power level indicator and the Bluetooth icon? It’s been like that for the past two hours.

I received three SMS news alerts on the Nugegoda incident between 6pm – 7pm. One from JNW, two from Ada Derana. At 9.08pm I received 7 SMS’s in quick succession (possibly after network congestion eased up) from both JNW and Ada Derana, with updates on casualties and news that all schools in the Western Province were to be closed on the 29th and 30th.

However, for around two hours after the bomb went off in Nugegoda, not a single SMS went out from my phone. Also from 6pm to 8pm, not a single call (to mobile as well as land lines) I tried was patched through. While I was able to sporadically get messages, incoming and outgoing voice and outgoing SMS communications were completely off the air.

Thought there’s been more than a little emphasis on the potential of mobiles to help emergency response and facilitate the dissemination of vital news and information during emergencies in Sri Lanka, my own experience suggests that there is still some way to go before we can rely on them completely as devices resilient to sudden surges in network traffic. However, as the first images from the incident demonstrate, mobiles increasingly used by eye witnesses and even victims to record the incident through camera phone photos.

As some countries have priority to emergency response SMSs, I wonder if the same be done with news alerts, given that their use / subscriber base seems to be expanding with new Sinhala and Tamil based SMS news services entering the market?

What did you experience when you tried to send an SMS or call today or an emergency in the past?

P.S. Interestingly, my usually glacial paced ADSL connection from SLT (the Nugegoda exchange can’t be more than 50m from where the bomb went off) worked perfectly throughout the incident. Bizarrely, I got a data rate of around 215Kb/s at around 7pm, which is about the rate I get on Sundays and Public Holidays. Can’t figure that one out – maybe everybody in Nugegoda offices just logged off and scrambled home?