The Mumbai blasts have exposed the weakness of the communications network in the country. If you had any friends or family in Mumbai on 7/11, you will know how the telephone network all but collapsed that day. Both landline exchanges and mobile phone networks were overwhelmed. As on previous occasions, like the attack on the Sankat Mochan Temple in Varanasi, people ended up sending text messages to TV channels in the hope that their loved ones would see them and know of their situation. That phones did not work on 7/11 is not surprising — the experience in London after 7/7 was similar. No matter how well-equipped, telephone exchanges and mobile networks can only handle a certain amount of call attempts and traffic at any given time.
In times of emergency, what is needed is comprehensive information that is accurate, reliable and easily accessible for all. There is a strong case for an Integrated Emergency Information/Communication System that would provide information in case of national, regional or local emergencies. The essential features of such a system have to be cost-effectiveness, accessibility, good geographical coverage, short response time and ability to support multiple data sources. At present all that the government does is to put up some help-lines which more often than not are not accessible and are of little use. Existing technologies can be utilised to good effect, and the system need not be expensive or complicated. For starters, the government could use existing TV and FM channels, because people turn to them in times of emergency for information. There should be well-honed drills that will tell people what to do, in the event of a major emergency such as an earthquake or a major terrorist attack. The responsibility for the information must be given to an officer senior enough to inspire trust and confidence. The second challenge is to have existing communications channels running.
The obvious need here is for rugged systems with enough extra-capacity to absorb sudden surges in demand triggered by events like the Mumbai blasts. The government’s plans for communications during emergency should be standardised and well advertised, so that the public knows where to obtain timely, authentic and authoritative information.