This week I filed a quick comment in the FCC's broadband proceeding, urging the Commission to ensure that any wireless broadband plan included an opportunity for the use of standardized, low-bit-length messages in emergencies.
After a disaster, many wireless voice systems fail, but wireless data, which can accept latency, is much more likely than voice to get through, particularly if it is formatted in a way that can be recognized and prioritized by whatever towers and switches are still functioning.
Ideally, it should be possible to send a standardized message with just a few characters that will say "I'm safe" or "I'm in trouble" or "I will need help soon" and provide to location data by pulling the E911 data, then adding name and phone number from subscriber records.
The standardized message could be sent to a predesignated group of recipients, or to everyone in the subscriber's speed dial or contacts list. It could also be sent to a single government server (perhaps run by DHS) for distribution to first responders based on the subscriber's location. (This would require the user's consent, but hopefully consent could be obtained beforehand, especially with moderately predictable disasters like hurricanes.)
Conceivably, the "rescue me" could also be sent to a predesignated public site so that rescues and assistance are not slowed by government coordination. It is easy to imagine a website maintained by volunteers where messages are prioritized for assistance by "crowdsourcing" the prioritization process much the way Digg identifies the top stories of the day. This too would require consent, but it would allow Americans to rescue themselves, their friends and neighbors, without a debilitating (and often imprudent) reliance of government agencies.
The FCC could play a useful role in convening the service providers and determining the best way to standardize the protocols associated with such messages and encouraging government and perhaps private parties to supply reliable servers to which the messages could be sent for organization and priority.
Stewart's post is also crossposted on his blog Skating on Stilts.