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date: 11 December 2019

Information and Communication Technology in Crisis and Disaster Management

Summary and Keywords

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) cover a wide range of telecommunication devices and applications, which facilitate the flow of information. Within crisis and disaster management, these devices and applications may be used explicitly for hazards or crisis detection, information management, communication, situational awareness, search and rescue efforts, and decision support systems. Everything from cell phones and social media to unmanned aerial vehicles and weather stations are used to collect, disseminate, and monitor various types of information and data to provide a common operating picture. ICTs are continually evolving, with new features developed and deployed at a rapid pace. This development has had a unique impact on crisis and disaster management, allowing for real-time communication and situational awareness, as well as novel approaches to simulations and training.

With the near-ubiquitous use of some devices, information is also no longer held solely by government or private sector officials; ordinary citizens are also able to contribute to and disseminate information during and after crises. For some segments of the population, this ability to meaningfully contribute is not only empowering but necessary to highlight unmet needs. Throughout the evolution of ICTs, new research and practical concerns have highlighted persistent unmet needs of more vulnerable populations due to growing interdependence and integration across jurisdictional boundaries worldwide. The continued expansion of ICTs will most likely have a profound impact on this field in the future.

Keywords: emergency communications, warnings, disasters, crisis, crisis analysis, technology

Information and communications technology (ICT) refers to technologies that provide access to information through the use of telecommunications. ICT used in crisis and disasters management includes a wide range of software and devices primarily used to communicate. By definition, ICT includes technological tools such as computers, the Internet, broadcasting technologies, and telephony.1 The software and hardware may focus at the national government level, within organizations, or for dissemination to the public. At the national level, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in connection with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and various wireless providers in the United States use an Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System (IPAWS) to disseminate warning messages, such as via Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). WEA enables geotargeted dissemination of messages to cell phones within an area of an impending and immediate threat.

Similarly, the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination system is used in Canada to distribute emergency alert messages to the public in multiple ways including through cell phones. International humanitarian efforts used ICT following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, bridging the connection between (and among) volunteer networks and technology communities. The lessons learned from such an initiative have been highlighted in the Disaster Relief 2.0 blog series and in a report led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Foundation/Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.2

However, for organizations, there are software and devices explicitly used to enhance situational awareness and mitigate interorganizational communications concerns, such as Web EOC used in Emergency Operations Centers in both the public and private sectors. Other devices generally exist for public use that support household and individual receipt of warning messages, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Weather Radio.

The use of ICT public alerts and warnings typically follows a three-step process: (a) detection, (b) content and dissemination, and (c) public receipt (Mileti & Peek, 2000). Detection includes the use of various software and hardware to determine and detect impending threats. This step also consists of the decision to warn the public. The content and dissemination step includes the composition, subject matter, and substance of the message, as well as the software and hardware used to disseminate the message. The content of the message itself is essential and can influence the impact (and reach) of warning messages, as well as the public decision to take protective action. While only briefly mentioned in this article, there are several research and case studies that find evidence to the importance of “how” information is shared and “which” words are used to convey urgency within the message (Aguirre, 1988; Bennett, Laforce, Touzet, & Chiodo, 2018; Lindell, 2018; Lindell & Perry, 2003; Mileti & Peek, 2000; Quarantelli, 1990). The critical value of crafting proper messages should not be discounted and is just as significant as the technology used (or not used) to disseminate warnings. The public receipt phase includes the ability of citizens to hear, receive, understand, believe, and heed the warning message sent to them. Many early studies have made the connection between the content of the message and public receipt or perception (Mileti & Peek, 2000; Silver & Conrad, 2010). Wood and colleagues (2017) noted that the process of milling on technological devices may cut down on the time spent to confirm warning messages. However, another connection has been made between the technologies used to both disseminate and receive the message and the ability of the targeted citizens to receive or heed the warning message (Bennett & LaForce, 2019; Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate [DHS], 2015).

Beyond situational awareness and dissemination of warnings, ICT is often used in crises and disasters to detect impending threats, information management, search and rescue, and decision support systems. The use of ICT has been of particular interest to key research stakeholders in the crisis and disasters field. According to the National Research Council (2007), there are six-key IT-enabled capabilities that assist in improving disaster management:

  1. 1. Robust, interoperable, priority sensitive communications

  2. 2. Situational awareness and common operating picture

  3. 3. Decision support and resource tracking/allocation

  4. 4. Organizational agility for disaster management

  5. 5. Engagement of public

  6. 6. Infrastructure survivability and continuity of societal functions

ICTs have become increasingly significant in the field. In 2018, the FEMA Higher Education Program published a report of a proposed research agenda for the emergency management higher education community. Among the proposed research thrusts was the need to focus research studies on “Data, Technology, and Societal Impacts.” This focus was determined based on the necessity for interdisciplinary research around the advantages and disadvantages in leveraging both new and old ICT devices and applications (FEMA, 2018). The importance of cross-, inter-, and transdisciplinary studies around this topic cannot be understated. The positive (or negative) impacts of ICT may originate at conceptualization, development, use, or implementation and may vary depending on social constructs and organizational structure. Other similar efforts have pressed the importance of technological literacy in terms of competency for practitioners in the field and curriculum development for individuals teaching in the area (Feldmann-Jensen, Jensen, & Smith, 2017).

Various Types of ICT for Crisis and Disasters

As one could imagine, ICT is used in nearly every aspect of crisis and disaster management, much like it is used in almost every aspect of daily life. The near-ubiquitous use of wireless devices has opened the market to a variety of applications. This section is organized around ICT type to provide an adequate (though not comprehensive) overview of ICTs used in crisis and disaster management, which includes communication, situational awareness, decision support systems, search and rescue, and hazards detection.


Communication during crises and disasters usually appears in more than one form, within an organization, across various organizations, and to (and among) the public. The use of ICT for communication typically differs based on the type of information discussed and the recipient. During disasters and emergencies, many in the United States are familiar with the 911 telephone service. However, cell phones have increased in importance within the past 10 years and have influenced the new needs and capabilities of 911 services. Furthermore, the evolution of social media and related software applications have introduced new ways to communicate crisis and disaster messaging to the public. For communication across organizations, cell phones may not be the most secure or interoperable to maintain modern communications.

911 is the standard number linking North American callers with an emergency dispatch office. Typically used to reach police, fire, and emergency medical officials, the service has changed to expand the reach considering the growth of and reliance on mobile wireless technologies.

For example, Reverse 911 is an alerting system that allows the alert authority to disseminate messages directly to constituents in a targeted geographic location. Typically, these messages are prerecorded and readily delivered to landline phones within a designated location. However, to receive the messages via cell phones, each phone must be registered with the alert authority. Worldwide there are other similar numbers and uses. For example, Mambu and Guiterrez (2016) performed experiments to examine the use of a Reverse 911 system for dissemination of tsunami-related warnings in New Zealand. Finding potential in their prototype design, they noted that the lack of wireless networks during a tsunami might cause connection issues.

Another adaptation is Next Generation 911 (NG-911), an initiative to upgrade the 911 systems in the United States and Canada. The purpose is to enhance the service to allow for voice, photo, video, and text messages from the public to the 911 networks. The initiative was developed following the ubiquitous use of wireless mobile phones in both nations. Again, other countries have investigated this type of technology for use. Corral-De-Witt and colleagues (2018) examined the challenges in moving to adopt a NG-911 system in Ecuador.

Smart 911 is an additional software package for 911 dispatches in the United States that allows registered residents to add personal information to their phone number (Kropczynski et al., 2018). Used in several U.S. jurisdictions, the service can assist in providing information about unique considerations for individuals within a household, such as disabilities, allergies, pets on the premises, or other pertinent medical information. The idea is that the dispatcher can correctly inform responders about the situation before their arrival on the scene.

Cell phones have increasingly gained prominence as a critical ICT during crises and disasters. This pervasive use was one of the deciding factors for 911 expansion. The best way to reach individuals was no longer through landline phones at the household level. According to research conducted at the Pew Research Center (2018), nearly 95% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, with almost 77% owning a smartphone. This same study shows that while smartphone ownership varied by age, 100% of adults aged from 18 to 29 own a cell phone. The near-ubiquitous use of cell phones at the individual level has made them an essential factor in warning the public during disasters and emergencies. The Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 established a national all-hazards alert system to disseminate messages via several different technologies including cell phones. The WARN Act led to the formation of the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Service, later changed to WEA. WEA allows for three types of alerts to be issued over cell phones: presidential alerts, imminent threat alerts, and child abduction alerts. As of 2018, over 40,000 alerts have been sent to cell phones via WEA since its inception in 2012 (FCC, 2018). The service is deployed by way of a public-private partnership between volunteer wireless cellphone carriers, the FCC, and FEMA. Members of the public in the United States with compatible cell phones and other wireless devices can receive geographically targeted warning messages in a text-like form. In January of 2018 the FCC adopted rules to significantly improve the geographic targeting feature of WEA by having messages sent directly to the (potentially) impacted area within one-tenth of a mile.3 This new requirement is set to take effect in November of 2019. Additionally, participating wireless carriers will have to accommodate Spanish-language translation of the message and 360-character messages (up from 90 characters) by May 2019. Several researchers have studied WEA in comparison with social media messaging (Sutton, League, Sellnow, & Sellnow, 2015) and in terms of accessibility (Bennett & LaForce, 2019; LaForce, Bennett, Linden, Touzet, & Mitchell, 2016). In 2019, Sutton and Kuligowski provided guidance for alert authorities on the content of warning messages sent via WEA to increase comprehension.

Cell phones are equally critical for first responders and other crises and disaster professionals to communicate with each other. Since many disasters do not abide by jurisdictional boundaries or specific infrastructure, wireless technologies, power, or other critical utilities may be interrupted. In this scenario, ad hoc networks are often rapidly deployed to restore wireless service for cell phones and other mobile devices. A Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), Cellular on Wheels (COW), or Cellular on Light Truck (COLT) can be used to provide interim service until permanent services can be restored. An RDU is a mobile radio base station that is deployed on a truck. Kwasinski (2013) highlighted the use and importance of COWs and COLTs following Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York. Discussing the general challenges of emergency communications post-disaster, Huang and Lien (2012) noted that in areas with high debris or limited accessibility, COWs might make availability of wireless signals limited.

When most networks are down, many turn to amateur radio hobbyists. Also known as Ham radio, amateur radio is a hobby that uses frequency spectrum bands for noncommercial purposes, including emergency communications. According to the FCC, there are 27 small-frequency bands allocated to amateur radio internationally, and there are millions of operators worldwide. All of the frequencies are shared, and operators in the United States must be qualified to use the frequencies. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the association for amateur radio in the United States, founded in 1914. Part of the AARL vision is to organize and train volunteers to provide public service and emergency communications during disasters. Within the AARL, there is a group of licensed operators called the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, who volunteer to assist with emergency communications. Amateur radio has previously been beneficial during several disasters including Loma Prieta (1999), the Oakland fire (1991), Hurricane Andrew (1992), and the Northridge earthquake (1994) and often supports the Red Cross (Colie, 1997). Other researchers have noted that there is a way amateur radio “could fill the communications gap” during emergencies (Cid, Mitz, & Arnesen, 2018, p. 258). Through the development of Bethesda Hospitals’ Emergency Radio System, Cid and colleagues discuss how amateur radio technologies were combined with wi-fi and specialty software to enhance public health communications during extreme events.

The evolution and ubiquitous use of both the Internet and cell phones in the 21st century has changed the landscape of communication and, as a byproduct, emergency communication and messaging. The sheer number of individuals using social media is one such change. Social media is a broad term to cover a variety of Internet-based systems and applications, which facilitate real-time communication among users. Typically, these platforms allow users to post content, traverse other users content, follow (or like) other users, and communicate with each other on a shared networked system. The more popular U.S. based social media platforms include Facebook (over 2.2 billion monthly active users as of 2018), YouTube (over 15 billion visitors per month as of 2019), Twitter (over 200 million users internationally as of 2019), and Instagram (over 77 million users as of 2015). Social media has become a prominent application in crisis and disaster management due to the increased use of the Internet and cell phones by the public. Several researchers have studied social media used during disasters, specifically by citizens, during winter storms in Atlanta (Sharpe & Bennett, 2018), election violence in Sub-Saharan Africa (Buntain, McGrath, & Behlendorf, 2018), and severe weather in Nova Scotia (Silver & Matthews, 2017); following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (Yates & Paquette, 2011); and during U.S. political conventions (Hughes & Palen, 2009).

While social media platforms may be accessed from any Internet-capable device, many Americans access them through mobile devices. For example, nearly 70% of U.S. adults indicate that they use their mobile phones to access Facebook, 73% for YouTube, and 24% for Twitter (Greenwood, Perrin, & Duggan, 2016). Furthermore, there is an increasing share of the population who use smartphone wireless Internet in place of traditional broadband services, 8% in 2013 and 20% in 2018. This shift in the consumption of content has had an impact on crisis and disaster management strategies, with many public and private sector organizations electing to hire social media specialists. Social media platforms are monitored before, during, and following many disaster events and other events of high importance such as presidential elections. General emergency management messaging, as well as public alerts and warnings, are occasionally disseminated on social media platforms. The “follow” aspect of these platforms have compelled organizations to develop a social media persona for their feed to maintain followership. The strategy for organizations also includes crafting messages specific to their target audiences and each social media platform. The expanded use of social media platforms by elected public officials has heightened the need to understand various social media marketing strategies for government as well. Researchers have begun to note the importance of examining the use of specific platforms by emergency managers (Bennett, 2017), their impact on crisis communications (Stern, 2017a), and barriers to official use (Plotnick & Hlitz, 2016). Furthermore, researchers have noticed the unique advantages and disadvantages to use based on how social media platforms are accessed with a smartphone (Stern, 2017b).

Additionally, the public has found a new voice and role through the use of social media. The top-down flow of information about crises and disasters has been flattened to include citizen journalists through the use of social media platforms. Citizen journalist is a term used to cover the participation of citizens with contributions and refinement to the news (Crowe, 2012). Due to this new empowering role, citizen journalists also have a voice during disasters. In addition, they can “magnify the voice of a community” (Crowe, 2012, p. 53).

If citizen journalists magnify a community’s voice, crowdsourcing is the means to clarify the message. Crowdsourcing is the act of combining the knowledge of several individuals to solve a problem, where one person alone would not be able to address all aspects of the said problem. Crowdsourcing also refers to a type of software or website (usually open sourced) that allows for multiple individuals to contribute information to solve a problem. Within crisis and disaster management, crowdsourcing has been used to gather collective intelligence. The first crowdsourcing tool created was Ushahidi. Ushahidi was developed in response to violence in Kenya following the 2008 elections. Headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) collected reports of violence across the country from citizens via text messages or emails and plotted them on Google maps.4 Since 2008, Ushahidi has been used in over 160 countries, crowdsourcing the reports from over 50 million citizens (as of 2019). In 2010, the Ushahidi platform was leveraged following the Haiti earthquake, allowing impacted citizens to crowdsource their conditions via text message (Wetherell, 2013). Similar platforms have been developed and used in other disasters. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the East Japan Earthquake Media Coverage Map was launched to map news coverage and social media posts including geotagged tweets from citizens and breaking news reports from mainstream media. From this map, gaps were identified where there was no news coverage but several geolocated social media posts from citizens.5 Over the years, the concept of crowdsourcing has been used among citizens, leveraged by volunteers, and actively monitored by emergency and crisis management professionals for improved situational awareness. Research on the impact and use of crowdsourcing technologies have included use by volunteers and others (Ludwig, Kotthaus, Reuter, van Dongen, & Pipek, 2017; Starbird, 2011; Zook, Graham, Shelton, & Gorman, 2010).

The success of crowdsourcing initiatives have paved a path for crowdfunding. Sholoiko (2017) proposed a donation-based business model for financing the losses from disasters through crowdfunding, especially in developing countries. While many researchers have witnessed the success of online charity donation platforms (Park & Johnston, 2017), some have noted barriers (Di Pietro, Spagnoletti, & Prencipe, 2019; Sulaeman, 2017). In Italy, researchers discuss the digital divide, digital literacy, and lack of social network interactions as potential barriers to crowdfunding (Di Pietro et al., 2019). In Singapore, researchers discussed the importance of gaining trust from potential donors (Sulaeman, 2017).

Situational Awareness

Several types of hardware and software are used to assist in the maintenance of situational awareness during various crises and disasters. Global positioning systems (GPS) and geographical information systems (GIS) work together to provide practical on-the-ground information on threats, resources, and necessities during ongoing emergencies. Termed GI science, the concept often includes GPS, GIS, and remote sensing (Cutter, 2003). Older technology such as video cameras has seen a drastic update in capabilities to assist in situation awareness, including facial recognition software. Meanwhile newer technology features such as geo-fencing allow situation awareness information to be segmented by immediacy, need, and other unique concerns related to demography.

Most geographically related data is accessible by use of GPS. GPS includes space-based positioning, navigation, and timing signals gathered by Earth-orbiting space vehicles, and it is owned by the U.S. government and operated by the U.S. Air Force. GPS services are provided for military and civilian use and are freely available to all users on a continuous worldwide basis. Many of the civilian applications have been helpful in the crisis and disaster space, namely for disaster relief services, surveying, cell phones, geo-tagging in social media posts, and many search and rescue technologies. GPS is often critical for geospatial mapping programs.

GIS is a collection of hardware, software, data, and personnel. This collection works together to capture, manipulate, analyze, and display geographical data. GIS provides the framework for visualizing (mapping) and analyzing the multiple data sets, often tagged using GPS. GIS is used in numerous disciplines; within emergency management, researchers, disaster practitioners, and crises officers can collect data about ongoing threats and display them together with available resources, staff, impacts, and demographics to aid in situational awareness and decision support. Depending on the purpose, some systems use data from remote sensing cameras. Previous research has identified GIS as a tool that is useful beyond situational awareness to include decision support and interoperability (Cutter, 2003). While most research on the use of GIS is focused on preparedness, Emrich, Cutter, and Weschler (2011) propose that these systems can be quite useful during response, recovery, and mitigation phases of the disaster life cycle.

Remote sensing typically uses aerial photos to obtain information about the earth from above. Usually these sensors originate from cameras mounted on aircraft or satellites. However, there are remote sensors positioned at the ground level to monitor solar or atmospheric conditions. For example, the Earth Observing Laboratory maintains ground-based, polarimetric weather radars to provide atmospheric measurements of cloud systems.6 Using space satellites, remote sensing can track storms and damages in large geographic areas, which is useful in prediction and forecasting. There are several types of remote sensing technologies, and they can be passive or active in their detection process. Occasionally, remote sensing technology is attached to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) for the active and deliberate collection of data. Several studies are leveraging remote sensing technologies for crises and disasters including for surveillance of oil spills (Jha, Levy, & Gao, 2008) and post-disaster damage assessments (Dong & Shan, 2013; Yamazaki & Matsuoka, 2007).

Founded in 1972, the longest continuously acquired space-based data archive is the Landsat program. Through a joint initiative from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Landsat supports remote sensing studies worldwide and provides situational awareness about the environment.7 Landsat is also part of the USGS National Land Imaging Program (NLI). NLI was set up to provide continuous monitoring of the earth terrain, coastal regions, and islands to assist in efforts related to economic security and environmental vitality.8 The Landsat program has been utilized in research to assess damage in Egypt (Azab, 2009), volcanic activity (Joyce, Belliss, Samsonov, McNeill, & Glassey, 2009), and flooding (Dao, Liou, & Chou, 2015).

The data collected using GIS may include information about various impending threats based on remote sensing capabilities. Depending on population, resources, or hazards in a specific area, geo-fencing can be used to evacuate a particular area or to place location-based restrictions around a city. Geo-fencing is a geographically identified virtual perimeter. There have been many different proposals for implementing geo-fencing technologies within crisis and disaster management. For example, Szczytowski (2014) proposes using geo-fencing with social media technology to visualize and monitor communications within disaster zones, while Suyama and Inoue (2016) examined the use of geo-fencing with smartphone and website data to deliver specific emergency messaging to individuals within high-probability impact zones. Within the political sphere, U.S. Representative Chuck Schumer (New York) proposed a law to establish geo-fencing for UAVs implementing “no-fly zones” near airports.9

Decision Support Systems

Decision support systems assist in the sharing of information, training operations, and resource tracking. Most often in software form, decision support systems connect agencies beyond jurisdictional lines. They often become crucial to crises and disaster management as the size and scale of the emergency increases.

The National Emergency Management Information System allows for information sharing among federal, state, and local agencies. It includes sharing information such as infrastructure support, recovery efforts, and victim disaster assistance. Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) is software used by those industry and government agencies involved in chemical hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA developed CAMEO. It is used to access, store, and evaluate information critical for developing chemical-related emergency plans to assist with regulatory compliance. In conjunction with the Aerial Locations of Hazardous Atmosphere, CAMEO can map air dispersion models to assess and predict the release and spread of hazardous materials.

Virtual reality (VR) headset is a head-mounted device that provides the user still and moving images in a VR platform. The devices include the combination of several different types of technology, including audio, video, and a variety of sensors. The sensors may include eye tracking, head motion tracking, gyroscopes, and accelerometers. Unlike many of the other devices and software discussed in this section, VR headsets have almost exclusively been used for hazard and disaster management during preparedness efforts, such as simulation and training (Andreatta et al., 2010; Hsu et al., 2013). For example, the National Library of Medicine has a Virtual Reality Disaster Health Preparedness Training program, which uses VR headsets to simulate exercises for Incident Command System Trainers in a multiplayer video game application.10

Search and Rescue

Specifically related to disaster management, search and rescue efforts have increasingly found benefits in using ICT devices. Immediately following disasters, detection equipment can determine the presence of weapons of mass destruction, heartbeats in the rubble, or specific chemicals within a particular area. Beyond airplanes, helicopters, and satellites for assistance in finding and locating individuals, UAVs once only used for the military have been used for natural disaster civilian applications.

Robots are generally programmable machines that can assist in tasks via automated control. Occasionally, robots are controlled remotely or may take on missions based on predetermined algorithms. This broad definition of a robot includes UAVs, humanoid machines, and canine robots. In hazards and disasters, utilization of robots has expanded beyond industrial warehouses to include tasks in and around crisis and disaster management. Various types of robots have been used to assist in debris management and surveillance and to deploy medical items to hard-to-reach areas. Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Japan’s nuclear plant was impacted, which caused threating levels of radiation near the disaster site. Therefore, to assist with damage assessment, authorities may use robots. For example, the KOHGA3 ground robot was prepared for use following the earthquake for damage assessment of buildings in Honshu (Guizzo, 2011). In addition to having agility, robots are often outfitted with cameras and sensors to collect data. Robots can be aerial, subterranean, or fully submersible underwater and come in various sizes.

UAVs have been used to collect high-resolution photos and other data before, during, and after specific hazards and disasters. Unlike satellites and regular video cameras, which may have observation gaps or limited resolution or mobility, UAVs, or unmanned aerial systems, have shown to be useful in remote sensing for areas often inaccessible to conventionally human-crewed aerial vehicles. As such, UAVs have been increasingly deployed for environmental monitoring and surveillance, law enforcement, and disaster management. Following several disasters, UAVs or drones were used to assess damage to roads, bridges, and buildings as well as to locate isolated survivors swiftly (Rodriguez et al., 2006).

Corporations and government agencies have used subterranean robots to assist with the exploration of tunnels, mines, sewers, and caves, which inhibit the safety of humans (Kumar, 2016; Li, Zhu, You, Wang, & Tang, 2019). Research on this area of robotics is expanding as the Defense Agency Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has increased funding for this research and even created a competition, the DARPA Subterranean challenge.11

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are robots that can carry out automatically programmed underwater tasks or by a remote operator. UUVs are useful for collecting, tracking, transmitting, and analyzing data collected underwater in post-disaster situations. In post-disaster situations, UUVs can be helpful in surveying damaged infrastructure, such as levees, dams, or bridges (Bogue, 2016). Additionally, they have been used to assist in locating missing vehicles, such as downed planes and submarines at sea.

Hazards Detection

Detection is typically the first part of the process for crisis and disasters communication. As mentioned earlier, it is the first part of the disaster warning process. Several ICT-related hardware and software have been used during the detection stage for natural disasters, including Doppler radar and weather stations.

In weather, Doppler radar has been used as a detection device, primarily for hurricanes and tornadoes. Using a pulse-Doppler technique, this receiver device senses the motion of precipitation and wind speed and is a specific type of Doppler radar. Doppler radar devices are used in various applications including but not limited to aviation, satellites, and radiology and in the military. A new generation of radars has been developed to better predict approximate time and location down to the minute. The Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) group developed its self-named radars, which are capable of tracking tornadoes and ice storms with more accuracy.12 These CASA radars were developed from a multidisciplinary group funded by the National Science Foundation led by a team at the University of Massachusetts. Most of their testing has been in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of the United States tracking tornadoes (Philips et al., 2017).

Weather stations include a collection of sensors to detect changes in temperature, wind, and various types of precipitation. According to Pine (2017), weather stations are among the oldest forms of information and communications technology in hazards management, with the first stations dating back to the 1800s. Weather stations can be for government, organizational, or household use and can be readily purchased in stores or online. Much of the information collected by sensors can be shared and analyzed through desktops, laptops, and mobile phones. Weather stations can also be used within a network. For example, Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS) are used to detect and analyze the conditions ripe for wildfires. RAWS is operated by several U.S. government agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, and the National Interagency Fire Center. As of 2019, there was nearly 2,200 interagency RAWS across the United States.13 RAWS uses the Geostationary Operating Environmental Satellite to collect and store data.

Future Direction of ICT in Crisis and Disaster Management

ICTs are continually evolving, with new features developed and deployed at a rapid pace. Communication during crises and disasters has become more complex. The ever-changing environment has introduced a variety of accompanying strengths and opportunities, as well as new and continued weaknesses and threats.

The use, inclusion, and evolution of ICT in crisis and disaster management have led to many strengths for the field. Use of platforms such as social media has allowed for real-time communication among emergency management personnel and real-time monitoring of information shared among the public. The development of crowdsourcing tools has enhanced situational awareness, leveraging data from official news sources and impacting citizens on-the-ground. The strengths of these tools cannot go understated; they offer officials more information to assist with resource, personnel, and allocation management, as well as providing necessary intelligence for decision-making during crises. Furthermore, these tools offer the unique ability to engage directly with the public audience or consumer. In the age of Big Data, ICT tools contribute to crisis and disaster management adding real-time, often geotagged data at significant volumes to assure a clear common operating picture can be achieved.

Big Data can also be a weakness: Can crisis and disaster managers quickly and accurately sift through the volume to find the value? There is such a thing as too much data, and the ICT use in crisis and disaster management can contribute to that if new technological skills are not developed. Furthermore, without constant evaluation of their skills, operators in the field may be unable to leverage the multitude of these tools to gather even basic intelligence. The use of VR and UAS (or effective observations from crowdsourcing platforms) may hinder training for, search and rescue from, or create a lag in understanding actual conditions in impacted areas. Other weaknesses include the misuse of these ICTs by citizens or government officials. Rumors and misinformation on social media can have a harmful influence on official monitoring efforts and regarding awareness among citizens. Misuse by government officials can lead to erroneous messages sent via WEA and subsequent congressional hearings, much like the Hawaii False Missile Alert in 2018.14 In 2019, DeYoung, Sutton, Farmer, Neal, and Nichols discussed the behavioral reactions and perceptions following the 2018 false alert in Hawaii, finding four themes on emotional response, protective action, vulnerability, and trust.

The use of ICT during crises and disasters also offer many opportunities for the communities served. Several of these devices and software have led to empowerment for those affected. For example, WEAs provide an improvement to other communication tools for reaching individual citizens regardless of their travels. Plus, due to the rapid growth and adoption of smartphones among younger generations, certain racial and ethnic minorities, and some individuals with disabilities, emergency communications may reach more of the population than before. Citizens leverage social media and crowdsourcing tools to contribute to hazard detection, situational awareness, and organized recovery efforts. GIS mapping and remote sensing tools provide opportunities to visualize a common operating picture for all relevant response personnel. The potential use of VR and UAVs can revolutionize training, simulation, and search and rescue efforts. Together, these technologies empower citizens to own their disaster risk and become engaged in solutions to reduce vulnerabilities, offer a pathway to transparency in decision-making processes, and in rare occasions be a catalyst for inclusion among the diverse population who reside in the United States.

Near-ubiquitous use of ICT in crisis and disaster management may also pose a threat and present complex policy considerations. Lack of interoperability among devices and across jurisdictions can cause major concerns for situational awareness and communication among crisis and disaster officials. The use of drones and other unmanned vehicles by citizens and law enforcement agencies has sparked debate and procedural concerns regarding surveillance. What rights do residents have, if UAVs are used for unlawful spying? Beyond the impact of one technology, what about the data acquired from multiple devices and software? Data is collected about every aspect of human behavior, from what people consume and where they live to who they engage with and their online search history, making a case for fear regarding privacy.

Still, other threats have emerged regarding the misuse of ICT. Immense responsibility is placed on the companies and government agencies collecting personal data. Several have been criticized for security faults, which allows for various types of cybercrimes. Social media platforms have discovered hackers able to control over 50 million accounts. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, cybercrime is becoming more commonplace. In addition to hacking, ransomware is a newer crime growing increasingly popular, where the hackers use encryption to prohibit businesses, the government, or individuals from accessing data until a set ransom is paid. This type of crime has been used in the most critical locations, where access to data is imperative, such as hospitals, airports, school districts, and state and local government.

Points of Consideration

Research and ongoing practical concerns have highlighted the unique considerations specific to vulnerable populations (Bennett, Phillips, & Davis, 2017). For example, some ICT may be more helpful than others in reaching vulnerable populations post-disaster. Other technologies may facilitate individual and household disaster risk awareness. Similarly, the increased globalization of society suggests that the use of ICT during crises and disasters is unique across jurisdictional borders. All devices are not adopted in the same way. For example, the World Health Organization has several publications that emphasize the increased importance cell phones have had on developing countries. What was once thought of as a luxury has become significant in terms of health surveillance, banking, education, and governance.

Vulnerable populations refer to individuals or groups who have a higher risk during a disaster because of characteristics or their situation, which is connected to how they respond and recover (Wisner, Blaikie, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004). Previous research has indicated an increased risk among older adults, individuals with disabilities, and certain racial and ethnic communities, to name a few. When trying to reach the general public at times of crisis, it is imperative to understand the differences in use among populations. In the United States alone, 95% of adults use cell phones; however, only 85% of adults 65 or older use cell phones according to the Pew Research Center (2018). A majority of U.S. adults use social media, but the platforms are used differently from each other based on race and age.

Social media has provided a means for everyone to be heard in the world. As such, during crises and disasters, the public can contribute to the news and expose unmet needs. Social media platforms have been beneficial for people with disabilities to leverage community networks during disaster response and recovery; however, the use of social media is not as far-reaching for all individuals with disabilities due to inaccessibility of features. An important consideration is to ensure that emergency messages are in accessible formats and disseminated on accessible platforms (Bennett et al., 2018).

Messages sent as public alerts and warnings may not reach all of the population because of the way information is consumed at the individual level. The message may not be accessible, comprehensible, or useful to recipients (Bennett, Baker, & Mitchell, 2017). Given the diverse population of the United States and the global appeal, tourists and visitors from foreign countries may not receive messages because of hearing-related disabilities, vision-related disabilities, English-language barriers, or comprehension (Bennett et al., 2018; DHS, 2015).

Furthermore, crises and disasters are often not restricted to politically or regionally drawn boundaries. While most of the research on ICT use for these fields originate in industrialized countries, the reality is disasters in one area can impact infrastructure, environment, or livelihoods in many other countries at various levels of development. ICT may facilitate or hinder post-disaster efforts, with cross-country (or cross-jurisdictional) impacts, as well as effects on economic performance (Weber & Kauffman, 2011). Working cross-country may pose challenges related to device interoperability and communication.

A final point to consider is that the threats to using ICT are not just domestic. Hacking-related crises related may come from international actors and have impacts at multiple levels of analysis from individual to national (Weber & Kauffman, 2011). Sophisticated actors from across the globe can attack servers, data, and networks, spurring confusion domestically.


ICTs are becoming increasingly essential in crisis and disaster management. Used in nearly every instance prior to, during, and after an incident, ICTs facilitate communications within organizations and across jurisdictions. Additionally, these technologies are critical tools to disseminate public alerts and warnings. Some ICTs have been used for quite some time, though they are leveraged in new ways, while novel technologies are continuously integrated into complex communications systems. The differences in use occur at various levels: internationally, nationally, organizationally, and at the household and individual level.

Many of the remote sensing technologies provide information about the earth and have enabled worldwide studies about environmental hazards. As an older technology, the Landsat program has monitored the earth’s terrain for nearly 50 years, and data gathered from that program has been used in research in several countries. Similarly, the free and open use of GPS has enabled technologies across the globe.

At the national level, countries are investigating public alerting systems specifically for their residents. The U.S.-based IPAWS system is one such example. Canada has a similar system through the Alert Ready and National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination system. As success stories propagate from use of these systems and others, additional countries may begin to adopt similar programs in the near future.

The bulk of ICT has been leveraged by crisis and disasters officials at the organizational (or local municipality) level. CASA radars have been used to assist local municipalities with tornado tracking, with better prediction times down to a minute of impact. Social media monitoring has become a common activity among many large corporations and for government officials in mega-cities. GIS is another increasingly important technology during crises and disasters, assisting officials in situational awareness and decision-making. Several software systems are used to assist in data management on particular hazards, resources, equipment, and personnel. The buzzing interest around robotics and VR is only expanding. Initially thought of as military-only devices, UAVs are being used for search and rescue, surveillance, crowd assessment, and damage assessment. Meanwhile, VR has opened the possibility for novel approaches to training and hazard identification simulations.

At the household and individual level, citizens are more empowered and informed. Social media, though monitored by organizations, have enabled contributions to the news and emergency messaging by individuals, victims, survivors, and spectators alike. Crowdsourcing systems increase citizen contribution, allowing impacted residents to identify key unmet food, power, and medical needs, among others. These same systems allow volunteers to assist remotely.

The continuous evolution of ICT in crisis and disaster management has advantages and disadvantages. At the individual level, increased dependence on these technologies make daily lives easier and heighten privacy and security considerations. The same occurs at the organizational and national levels. With the surge in use, data collection and monitoring has expanded. Combing through this data requires new skills, which may not be readily available in-house. Additionally, interoperability of multiple systems becomes a concern. However, the integration of ICTs proposes to offer the most powerful communications tools used for crises and disasters.

Primary Sources

Primary literature on this topic occurs as journal articles. However, there are key books that may be of use for more robust understanding of subtopics; most are edited volumes. Kar and Cochran (2019) connect disaster communication to community capacity building in Understanding the Roles of Risk Communication in Community Resilience Building. Chen and Ahn (2017) connect information technology more broadly to government in Routledge Handbook on Information Technology in Government. An overview of various topics related to disaster research is presented in the second edition of Handbook of Disaster Research (Rodriguez, Donner, & Trainor, 2018). Additionally, there are a few textbooks that offer perspectives focused on the use of ICT during disasters, including the second edition of Technology and Emergency Management (Pine, 2018), Disaster 2.0: The Application of Social Media Systems for Modern Emergency Management (Crowe, 2012), and Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World (Haddow & Haddow, 2013).

The National Academies Press has published summary of reports after convening experts from the National Research Council to discuss key areas related to ICT in crises and disasters; these books often provide solid direction for future research. In this article, Improving Disaster Management: The Role of IT in Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery (National Research Council, 2007), Public Response to Alerts and Warnings on Mobile Devices (National Research Council, 2011), and Geotargeted Alerts and Warnings: Report of a Workshop on Current Knowledge and Research Gaps (National Research Council, 2013).

The points of consideration section of this article was developed to highlight the critical value of ICT in crises and disasters. The reach of impact occurs at the macro and micro levels. For example, Lindell and Perry’s (2003) Communicating Environmental Risk in Multiethnic Communities emphasizes potential challenges for specific segments of the population to receive public alerts and warnings. Chapters within Ellis and Kent’s (2017) Disability and Social Media show the global, robust use of various platforms by individuals with disabilities. This information can be significant for certain applications of ICT in crises and disasters as outlined in Wisner and colleagues’ (2004) book, At Risk.

In addition to books, there are several journal articles and reports related to the use of specific types of ICT for crisis and disaster management such as warnings (Aguirre, 1988; Mileti & Peek, 2000; Quarantelli, 1990), accessibility (Bennett et al., 2017; DHS, 2015), amateur radio (Cid et al., 2018), GIS (Cutter, 2003; Emrich et al., 2011), social media (Gao, Barbier, & Goolsby, 2011; Hughes & Palen, 2009; Stern, 2017a; Stern, 2017b), crowdsourcing (Ludwig et al., 2017; Starbird, 2011), 911 technologies (Mambu & Gutierrez, 2016), radars and weather stations (Philips et al., 2017), and UAVs (Rodriguez et al., 2006). The discussion on ICT in crisis and disaster management includes a broad set of topics and technologies.

Further Reading

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Rodriguez, H., Donner, W., & Trainor, J. (Eds.). (2018). Handbook of disaster research (2nd ed.). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.Find this resource:


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