HHS offers SMS toolkit for disaster response

By Neil Versel
Photo Credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Photo Credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Acknowledging the power of text messaging to spread information fast, the Department of Health and Human Services has produced a toolkit of prepared messages for state and local authorities to disseminate during a disaster response.

A collaborative effort of five HHS divisions, the messages are meant to complement television and radio public-service announcements produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to government officials.

"During a disaster, the state or local agency can download and distribute the new public health messages using their existing cell-phone emergency message distribution systems. Community residents should contact their local emergency management agency to learn whether text message alerts are available in their community and to register if available," according to an HHS press release.

Sample messages include: "To help care providers, keep a list of drugs and dietary supplements with you. More info from CDC 800-232-4636 or http://go.usa.gov/jvZ"; and "Prevent child drownings. Keep kids from playing in or around flood water. More info from CDC 800-232-4636 or http://go.usa.gov/bGa."

Though the texts have not been tested in a real disaster situation yet, HHS spokeswoman Elleen Kane says that the messages are based on existing PSAs. "We felt pretty confident that they will be effective," Kane tells MobiHealthNews. HHS reports that more than 400 entities have expressed interest in using the messages.

Public health agencies seem to be receptive to the idea. "It's efficient, because a lot of times you just need to send very simple messages, and sometimes you need to send messages to a lot of people," Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says.

Benjamin says that the association convened a meeting at its Washington headquarters two years ago to discuss risk communication via social media. "It's just beginning, but we're seeing it more and more," he said.

Benjamin noted that the Food and Drug Administration used text messaging and Twitter during the 2009 recall of peanut products and said that since the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, many schools have been working with local authorities to develop plans for text communication for future emergencies. "There's no question there's a lot of interest in this and that [texting for disaster response] is going to explode," he said.

HHS limited each message to 115 characters so users can add local details as necessary. Standard SMS texts have a capacity of 160 characters, including spaces.

HHS says the department worked with state and local agencies to develop the messages. In addition to the CDC, other participating HHS branches include the FDA, the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.