Designing community-based emergency communication system: A preliminary study



In emergency response research, numerous studies have focused on building and evaluating communication infrastructures (e.g., Turoff et al., 2004) and on improving organizational communications during crisis management (e.g., Lundgren & McMakin, 2004). By contrast, citizen response and communication in emergency situations have been largely neglected in the literature. Only recently have researchers begun to systematically study and value citizen-to-citizen information sharing during emergencies (Hagar & Haythornthwaite, 2005; Palen & Liu, 2007).

In light of the importance of grassroots communication in dealing with emergencies, we propose a scalable prototype Community Response Grid (CRG) for emergency responses performed by active and engaged citizens (Shneiderman & Preece, 2007). Empowered by new information and communication technologies, a CRG is a communication infrastructure built upon the existing social networks of a community (Jaeger et al., 2007). CRG-based systems can incorporate multiple communication channels (e.g. Web, cell phones, emails, text messaging to mobile devices) with social network structures in a community to provide rapid and robust information exchange during emergencies.

Using College of Information Studies at University of Maryland as test-bed, this study examines design requirements for CRG systems, with a focus on community members' perception and use of Short Message Service (SMS) for emergency communications.


An online questionnaire was distributed in early August 2007 that collected quantitative and qualitative information through 17 multiple choice questions, some allowing open comments. The survey questions covered three topics: experience and perception of emergency communication, cellular phone usage in emergency communication, and general communication behaviors. At the time of the survey, the College had over 400 graduate students, 35 undergraduate students, and 39 full-time faculty and staff. Invitations to participate in the study were sent to the entire College through several active listservs and by instructors in several classes. From August to mid-October 2007, 128 responses (response rate 27%) were received from students, staff, and faculty, among which 113 were completed (88% completion rate).

Results and Implications

The diversity of communication means as reported by the survey respondents strongly support the proposition that a CRG should be an online/offline hybrid system incorporating multiple communication platforms to promote sustainability and universal access to emergency information. If one communication channel is disrupted, information can still flow through other available channels. The frequency of communications within and between the social groups indicates the activeness of social networks in the College, which lays the foundation for a social-networked-based emergency response.

Since the majority of members in the College obtain emergency information from official emails and websites, a Web interface for disseminating emergency information is essential. For peer to peer communication, email is still the most widely used application in the College, and thus a CRG should facilitate email communication as well.

Although 95% of respondents reported owning a cell phone and 76% said they are willing to receive emergency SmS from the University, there still exist a great deal of reluctance to SMS-based emergency communication. The qualitative data from open comments provided some interesting clues that help to explain the reluctant:

  • *Financial expense was the top reason for being unwilling to use SMS.
  • *Concern of spam - being “flooded” by “excessive,” “trivial,” “non life threatening” messages.
  • *Poor usability of SMS.

Conclusion and Limitations

This preliminary study demonstrates both challenges and opportunities for designing a community-oriented emergency communication system. The results suggest that a CRG will need to be designed as an online/offline hybrid system supporting various means of communication. We need to take into consideration the communication behavior and social network structure of the intended user group so that the CRG functionalities can be integrated into the community's daily activities. An SMS-based emergency reporting mechanism, however, may not be feasible for the population at this time. Although SMS shows great potential in reaching people “anytime, anywhere,” many respondents are still reluctant to use SMS (especially for sending messages) due to cost, usability, and other issues.

Since the survey sample was drawn from a primarily graduate college, it may not be representative of the entire University of Maryland population or other university populations. We expect that the degree of reluctance to cell phone and SMS as methods of emergency communication may be significantly lower in user groups consisting mostly younger users (for example, undergraduate students). Further research is needed to validate this hypothesis.