Ampara, Batticaloa, Colombo, Disaster Management, Galle, Hambantota, Jaffna, Media and Communications, Trincomalee

SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007

Chamath Ariyadasa

The coverage by the media of yesterday’s earthquake near Indonesia might be of interest to some readers, and as the editor of JNW, Sri Lanka’s first SMS news agency, I thought of penning my personal opinion and raising some issues that could be discussed further.

My biggest concern at the moment, as a journalist, is getting access to the initial tip off from authorities on an impending disaster and the subsequent official news messages in a timely manner so that they can be passed on to the public as fast as possible.

There isn’t an email or SMS alert system in place, that I know of, that could easily meet this need. I know of the Met Dept website ( which goes some way towards improving access to information, but I wouldn’t know when its updated.

An SMS or email by the Met Dept or Disaster Management Centre would go a long way towards helping the media pass on the message faster and more efficiently to the public saving valuable minutes in news delivery.

Yesterday, telephone access to the Met Dept and Disaster Mgt Centre was available and officials were available to tell us what was going, though it wasn’t always easy to phone in to these centres.

On the actual coverage by JNW via SMS, we thought it went pretty smoothly and SMS news delivery, which is a new and evolving format for breaking news, seems to be a very effective means of news delivery at the initial stages of a disaster warning.

I didn’t notice SMS congestion on any network during the first 2 hours. Though there was SMS congestion on one network in Colombo after those first 2 hours, but it cleared in under an hour.

In my opinion SMS news alerts are one of a number of methods of disseminating breaking news and one of several methods that authorities can use to inform the public. If not to reach 100,000 SMS subscribers, then at least 30,000 subscribers.

This number can include all media institutions reporters and local government officials, relief officials etc who want to be on the list (looking at delivery times of under 5-10 minutes).

From what I have gathered about SMS delivery, operators can increase capacity to deliver messages faster and to more people if they invest more, but current capacity/delivery times may be what I mentioned above.

SMS has now become one layer of disaster news dissemination which gets built on very quickly by TV, radio and web media leading to millions of people being made aware in minutes.

I am pretty sure that SMS alerts make news dissemination by TV, Radio and the web so much more faster, effective and efficient increasing reaction times of people involved in the process.

(Feedback from readers who received SMS news would be most welcome)

If breaking news by SMS came from the Met Dept or the Disaster Management Centre itself everyone’s reaction times would be so much more faster, which is what someone needs to seriously look at.

I heard that at least one radio station was talking about no threat after the Disaster Management Centre had warned the public on the coast to evacuate to safe areas, so it wasn’t a smooth coverage by any means.

I will be interested to know if Dialog experienced news delivery delays yesterday for their Reuters alerts but we delivered fine for our list of subscribers on all the networks.