Sandy reveals vulnerability, benefits of mobile devices

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, blackout-stricken parts of the East Coast have learned the hard lesson that cell phone service in a natural disaster is vulnerable to power outages, as reported by the New York Times. Millions of Americans in that part of the country were without electricity due to the storm, which in turn deprived residents in these hard-hit areas of mobile communications and the ability to contact friends, family and emergency responders.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 36 percent of American homes are wireless. However, the downside of mobile devices is that they require electricity to operate and the loss of wireless service when the power goes out is an all-too real danger.

That is why public interest groups have argued that wireless service providers must provide backup batteries for every cell tower. But, ever mindful of their financial bottom lines, the major carriers have complained that such measures would be too costly, opting instead to provide emergency generators and additional cell towers on a case-by-case basis should situations warrant.

However, according to a Wall Street Journal article, wireless carriers have released little data about how their networks held up following the damaging storm. "While electric utilities publish regular updates on the number and location of customers without power, carriers have made only vague statements about the state of their networks," the article stated.

After Hurricane Katrina caused widespread power and cell phone outages in 2005, the FCC attempted to require wireless carriers to install backup batteries at all of their sites. The major carriers, however, sued to block what they saw as burdensome and unnecessary regulations, and the federal government eventually withdrew their efforts to implement them.

Nevertheless, even with back-up systems in place, these systems still can fail in emergency situations when they are needed most, leaving people in the dark. Case in point: as Sandy pummeled New York City last week, NYU Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate all 215 patients to nearby hospitals, including Sloan Kettering and Mount Sinai. New York City's Bellevue Hospital Center also had to evacuate hundreds of patients after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, according to the New York Times

At Mount Sinai Hospital, which was operational during the storm, surgeon Dr. William Inabnet operated on a patient from Europe and was able to send real-time updates to family members using an app from MDconnectME. The app sends updates to patient-selected contacts via text or email on any Internet- or text-enabled device.

Now that power and cell service is restored to the area, an app that runs on smartphones and tablets is helping victims displaced by Sandy to quickly locate survival services in one of the hardest hit areas of New Jersey. Called HomelessConnections, the app allows emergency responders, volunteers, and community organization staff to quickly access resources to help those in need and direct them to the closest locations for food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and other services.

To learn more:
- read the New York Times article
- read the Wall Street Journal piece
- learn more about MDconnectME
- learn more about HomelessConnections