BICOLANOS, like most Filipinos, have always turned to the radio for information prior to, and during disasters.

For broadcast journalist Pio Fernandez of DZGB-AM Legazpi, having his listeners rely on his radio program to disseminate information needed for their safety is a task he takes seriously.

Fernandez is one of the recipients of the short messaging service (SMS) blast from the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO) on any information about an incoming typhoon or any other hazard that puts the safety of the public into question.

The SMS blast is done via the Infoboard, a web-based SMS solution developed by Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) to help facilitate effective, fast, and efficient dissemination of information to target communities.

“Through the years and through many disasters, our radio station has helped guide our listeners to safety based on information provided us by APSEMO, which we then ‘translate' to be easily understood by our listeners. We get important tips from APSEMO morning, noon, and evening even when there are no disasters. These are discussed on air, and these have helped further educate our listeners on the importance of preparedness and safety during disasters,” said Fernandez.

DZGB, the biggest radio station in Legazpi, is heard throughout Bicol, and worldwide on webcast, making it an effective channel with which to reach the most number of people and bring them to safety during disasters.

“The Infoboard provides us with significant communication support specifically to our warning and evacuation bulletins as a means to achieve zero casualties. It allows us to disseminate timely emergency advisories and weather bulletins directly to the barangay level. It also helps us circulate report and press releases for media updates, and public information and awareness,” said Dr. Cedric Daep, executive director of APSEMO.

“Disaster message alerts are most effective when they’re used by a disaster preparedness organization executing a preparedness plan because the messages are sent to identified individuals who have been trained in this plan and therefore understand or know the meaning of the messages being sent to them,” said Ramon R. Isberto, head of Public Affairs at Smart.

“A specific concern for mobile messaging is that messages are short at only 160 characters. Without proper training, short messages can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. But with proper training even short messages can trigger life-saving actions because the people who receive them know what to do,” added Isberto.

The Infoboard offers various SMS facilities with different functions and capabilities catering to the needs of a community, including customized SMS solutions, and text broadcast to pre-registered Smart and Talk ‘N Text subscribers.

It allows various government agencies such as the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (DOST-PAGASA), the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), and the Office of Civil Defense to send free alerts to their respective disaster preparedness networks.

For instance, in preparation for Typhoon Ruby, the NDRRMC, PAGASA, the Region 8 (Tacloban) office of PIA and the provincial governments of Albay, Cebu, Southern Leyte, Bohol, and Batangas, and the city governments of Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Danao, and Malabon sent out close to a million messages for free to its disaster preparedness networks.

Effective disaster communications is very important especially for areas vulnerable to disasters.

A recent report cited the Philippines as the country hit most by disasters in 2013. An estimated 6,300 people lost their lives, and some $13 billion in damaged infrastructure and agricultural produce was recorded for Typhoon Yolanda alone.

This increased vulnerability to disasters has prompted LGUs, government agencies and other entities involved in disaster management to embrace disaster communications as a tool to save lives.

A week before Ruby struck, about 3,000 students of Leyte Normal University (LNU) in Tacloban City have been receiving preparedness tips and updates on the typhoon’s track on their mobile phones from the school administrator.

Dino Amascual, LNU chief administration officer, said the Infoboard was useful in reaching students.

“Majority of our students are based in Tacloban but their homes and families are dispersed in the provinces of Leyte and Samar. The Infoboard provides us with an efficient communication tool for preparedness and warning during disasters. It has become part of our standard operating procedure (SOP) to send out safety tips prior to typhoons and during disasters,” said Amascual.

“The Infoboard is a big help for the Archdiocese of Palo. Days before Ruby struck, we have been using the Infoboard to update the clergy about the typhoon track and weather updates. It was also a channel for us to communicate with the parishes easier and faster, which is why we were able to have an initial assessment of the on-ground situation immediately after the typhoon hit,” said Fr. Chris Militante of the Archdiocese of Palo.

He said the Infoboard was also useful for their internal communication requirements. Previously, internal communications would have to be sent via messenger to the various parishes.

“Official communications take less time and we are able to inform the clergy of internal matters efficiently, which is very important especially with the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, and Palo. It also makes our communications official and easily verified because it came from official channels,” added Militante.

Also using the Infoboard are the local governments of Baler in Aurora, Butuan City, Dumangas in Iloilo, General Santos City, as well as the Cebu Archdiocese, DOST-PAGASA Bicol Region, and OCD-Cordillera Region.

Smart is also working closely with developer communities in creating mobile applications that transform the smartphone into a safety tool during disasters. These include the Batingaw, PINDOT, Project NOAH Mobile for Android devices, and RainCheckPH.

Under its #SafePh social advocacy, Smart has been promoting the culture of preparedness not only within its ranks but also across its partner-communities amid the increasing vulnerability of the Philippines to disasters. (PR)