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Preparing for Disasters: How SMS Paves the Path to Safety

Despite how the Philippines has been tagged nowadays as the Social Media Capital of the world, it still remains that we are also the Texting Capital of the world. This distinction is backed by the fact that, in 2010, the number of cellular phone subscribers in the Philippines reached over 23 million and rose to 26.2 million by 2016. By 2022, this statistic is expected to rise up to 46.04 million – and it can reach higher considering that social media has become a primary mobile mainstay.

But despite the advent of social media usage for communication, SMS still remains the Philippines’ strongest communicative medium. Not everyone has access to the Internet at all times for social media chatting, and some emails mistakenly get tagged as spam and disappear as junk mail, which makes SMS the most viable option to ensure that one’s message is always received.

And in times of crisis, SMS is the most powerful way that the government employ to strengthen their disaster risk and reduction management efforts.

NDRRMC text alerts

Republic Act 10639: “Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act” and NDRRMC

Back in 2014, then-President Benigno “PNoy” Aquino, III signed into law the Republic Act 10639 – otherwise known as the “Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act”. Though this law, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) were mandated to craft a system for alerts dissemination through SMS across the Philippines in the event of an impending tropical storm, tsunami, or other calamities. These are carried out by the mobile phone service providers in the country and must be sent out at regular intervals.

According to the law, “[t]he alerts shall consist of up-to-date information from relevant agencies, and shall be sent directly to the mobile phone subscribers located near and within affected areas.” The information stated must also include contact information of LGUs and other agencies that must respond to the situation.

While this effort initially drew flak from recipients who found these alerts annoying, it has also been essential for many Filipinos in staying alerted and updated on current weather conditions and tropical storm warnings and signals in their regions. It has even come to the point that netizens have been looking for the NDRRMC mobile alerts themselves when there was no warnings sent to them during Typhoon Ompong just September of this year.

Text Bato

‘Text Bato’ and ‘AFP Text Hotline 1678’

In 2016, efforts to better connect the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the public for more prompt reporting and addressing of various incidents, issues, and crimes gave rise to a PNP text hotline named after then-PNP Chief Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, aptly named “Text Bato” after his nickname. This was launched during the aftermath of the 2016 Davao City bombing that caused 15 deaths total and injured 70 at the night market where the incident happened.

While he was initially apprehensive about the idea (especially naming it after him), then-Chief Dela Rosa recognized that, had they established a faster way of bridging the public with law enforcement way before the incident, it might have been prevented and there would have been no lives lost. The system, which was powered by Yondu, lasted until the end of Chief dela Rosa’s tenure.

Meanwhile, during the five-month long conflict in Marawi, Lanao del Sur, many residents were unfortunately trapped between in the battle area and other affected places – some of which were inaccessible to relief operations. The Armed Forces of the Philippines, therefore, partnered with Yondu to launch the AFP Text Hotline 1678, powered by Mobile360, to enable government forces in Mindanao to broadcast text messages within the vicinity of the battlefield city.

The hotline was more than just an alert system – it served as a two-way communication for residents so they can receive updates and communicate back to the AFP on their location, complaints (such as abuse of soldiers), and if they need assistance via SMS to 26563 (Globe) or 74441678 (Smart) for immediate action.

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Restituto Padilla, Jr. addressed in a press statement during the launch that the entire combined forces of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) was not enough to promptly know of and take action on security threats such as the Marawi incident – cooperation and assistance of the public is also essential in strengthening the system. AFP Text Hotline 1678 was developed to be the meeting point between the two parties.

Indeed, the power of SMS can’t be underestimated when it comes to strengthening ties and even ensuring that every citizen is safe, no matter what crisis may come.

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