FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, May 02, 2005

In Case of Emergency, Don't Rely on E-Mail

E-mail is a wonderful thing. But one thing it was never intended to be is a method of rapid emergency notification. While generally fast, e-mail messages can take their sweet time getting from sender to recipient, depending on how they're routed. They also can fall prey to firewalls and overzealous spam traps.

For some reason, America Online has been treating e-mails issued by the emergency coordinator in Indian River County, Florida, as spam. As a result, AOL customers who subscribe to e-mail notifications about hurricanes, tornadoes and other emergencies have not been getting their alerts. The county says it is working with AOL to resolve the issue; in the meantime, it advises AOL customers to whitelist the county's e-mail address.

I've noticed similar problems with the local Amber Alert e-mail I subscribe to (though not having anything to do with AOL). I have the messages, along with other notifications (weather, breaking news, sports scores), sent to a text-capable cell phone, so I can get them "anytime, anywhere." However, during the last Amber Alert issued for my area, I didn't receive a message until 24 hours after the alert was cancelled!

Again, I must stress that this is not totally the fault of the technology, which is being used for a purpose for which it was never intended. Perhaps the time has come for a new e-mail protocol to be considered, one that would be used only by appropriate authorities to issue high-priority emergency notifications. These would be expedited through Internet routing tables and granted exceptions through all firewalls and spam traps. Strict governance would control precisely who could issue messages, and under what circumstances. Devices and software that recognized the protocol could flag an incoming message, assuring that the recipient reacts to it promptly.

With more people depending on the Internet and text-capable mobile devices for emergency communications, it's an idea that deserves some exploration.

UPDATE: AOL has reportedly resolved the blockage issue with the Indian River County authorities, though AOL defends its actions by claiming that the method in which the emergency e-mails were sent made them indistinguishable from commercial spam. "You just simply cannot in this day and age put up an e-mail server and crank out thousands or tens of thousands of e-mails without doing some legwork ahead of time," said an AOL spokesman.

Source: Techdirt