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Social Good: Social Media's Role in Saving Lives

In today's society, it seems that everyone has a cell phone. While some complain that this technology is creating a ruder and less socially aware generation, others have found ways to put this instant access to information to good use. The government has implemented a message system that's similar to text messaging as a way to immediately reach and warn thousands of people of threats to themselves and others.

Severe Weather Alerts

Image via Flickr by veggiefrog

Before mobile phones, radio or television was the only way to issue severe weather alerts. While this was the quickest way to get important information out, it also required that listeners not only have the device on, but also have electricity for the devices to work. Unfortunately, during severe weather, electricity is usually the first to go down. This meant that there were many times when people didn't get the vital information they needed during natural disasters.

That's why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), and the wireless industry came together to create Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Mobile phones in affected areas will receive these alerts to warn about the imminent threat of severe weather. The alerts can range from tornado warnings in counties where severe thunderstorms are raging to advisories about flooded roadways. Users don't need to subscribe to any service or download an app to receive these alerts.

AMBER Alerts

AMBER Alerts are broadcast when there's a confirmed abduction of a child under the age of 17. To issue an AMBER Alert, police must believe that the health and safety of the child are at serious risk, and they need to have a good description of the child and the abductor for the alert.

Mobile phone companies, such as T-Mobile, have AMBER Alerts turned on by default. This way, an alert is immediately sent out to mobile devices and the public can keep an eye out for the parties involved using the provided descriptions. The AMBER Alert uses a unique tone and vibration to signal the urgency of the message. At times, the alerts are startling, but they do allow residents to stay informed and they can increase the chances of a safe recovery. To date, this program has saved the lives of 679 children.

Silver Alerts

Image via Flickr by Borya

When an adult with a cognitive disability, such as dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or mental impairments, is missing, police issue a Silver Alert. This alert was originally labeled the Silver Alert since most of the missing persons are elderly. However, there are similar programs in other states that go by different names. As of now, 42 states, New York City, and the District of Columbia have adopted the Silver Alert program.

The criterion for issuing a Silver Alert is similar to the criterion used for the AMBER Alert. The police will complete a missing persons report, and they will determine if the individual has a disease or disorder that threatens his or her safety. Family will provide a description of the individual, as well as the make, model, color, and license plate number of their car if they were driving.

All of these alerts target the geographic area where the event is taking place. Cell phone towers in specific areas will send the alerts out. Therefore, even if someone from California is in New York during a time of severe weather, he or she will still receive the alert and all the important information needed. Also, since cell towers send out the alerts, the system does not know a person's cell phone number, nor does it have the capabilities of tracking cell phones. Finally, these alerts are free. They don't cost mobile phone users any extra rates, nor do they count toward any type of messaging plan the user may have.

While many disparaging discussions have centered around the constant state of connectivity that mobile phones provide, this is not always a negative. From alerts about abducted children or missing adults with mental impairments, to alerts about severe weather that is approaching, mobile phones have now become tools to save lives.

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