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                                       Abstract

Hurricane Katrina changed the way that organizations deal with crises, because

traditional methods of technology unexpectedly failed to work. Text messaging or

SMS—short message service—emerged as a successful means of keeping people

aware of what was happening. Text messaging has yet to be explored as a viable

communicative practice during crises. The students enrolled in a crisis management

class created a research project to answer these questions: What is text messaging or

SMS? Who would likely use SMS during a hurricane crisis and how? For what

purposes? What are the best practices for using text messaging? The end result of

their efforts captures the next wave of communicative practices in crisis management.
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                                      S.O.S. via SMS:

            Text Messaging as a Communication Strategy in Hurricane Crises

       When the call for papers in the Southern Communication Journal was posted, I

was teaching an upper level undergraduate course in Crisis Management at Ithaca

College in New York. Two of the students enrolled were displaced from Tulane

University because of Hurricane Katrina. Their personal experiences in conjunction with

the way that the crisis was handled were central topics of conversation in the class. As the

professor, I offered the students an opportunity to continue with the course syllabus, or to

answer the call in the journal. After a week’s deliberation, the students unanimously

expressed support for designing and conducting a research project and submitting a

manuscript for publication.

       The twenty students enrolled in the course were assigned to 5 groups, each of

which was responsible for a specific part of the research process: literature review,

theoretical framework, Human Subjects Review Board (HSRB) application, data

collection, and data analysis. The first question was ―What should we research?‖ To

determine the focus of their project, a brainstorming session was conducted and yielded

their desired topic: text messaging and its uses during Hurricane Katrina. This topic was

narrowed further with the help of the literature review group to text messaging within

crisis management plans (CMP) at three universities directly affected by the hurricane

and one indirectly affected. The goal was to compare the four universities to Ithaca

College. This comparison was based on a model of technology that the theoretical

framework group created.
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       Next, the question raised was ―How do we go about researching this topic?‖ The

general preference was to conduct qualitative research by interviewing the presidents and

members of crisis teams at the universities. In order to do this, the HSRB group filled out

the application and was approved. The data collection group then coordinated and

conducted 13 interviews using a teleconference phone. All interviews were tape-recorded

and transcribed. The data analysis group then examined the crisis plans from each

university and the transcripts from the interviews using the technology model created.

       For this manuscript to be completed, one member of each group was designated

as a leader. The leaders were responsible for writing the manuscript. My role as the

professor was only to provide guidance and support. What follows in the rest of the paper

is a description of the model and what the students learned in the process about text

messaging, crises, and hurricane Katrina.

                     Hurricane Katrina: How It Changed Crisis Plans

       Hurricane Katrina was one of the most socially and economically damaging

hurricanes in American history; not to mention one of the deadliest as well. It was the

sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane and the third-strongest U.S. hurricane on record to

make land fall. The Hurricane hit in late August of 2005, devastating much of the north-

central Gulf Coast of the United States. Katrina took the lives of 1,836 or more, making

it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928.

       Moreover, Hurricane Katrina was a turning point for many organizations, colleges

and university in their planning for crises, according to Lipka (2005):

       Many institutions simulate crises, running exercises to test their

       emergency systems and spot weaknesses in their plans. With Hurricane
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        Katrina as a live example of disaster response, officials at undamaged

        institutions have been watching closely — even as they offer various types

        of aid — to see how affected colleges' plans are holding up and to identify

        areas where their own plans could be strengthened (p. A29).

        Results of crisis situations like Hurricane Katrina and September 11th have made

the importance of having a crisis management plan apparent to higher education

administrators. In his article, Surviving a Crisis, in American School and University,

Mike Kennedy (1999) states that colleges and universities are typically more complex

systems because they are not only responsible for the classroom but residence halls,

medical facilities, research laboratories, and sports arenas as well. In the same respect,

colleges and universities are often the focal point of a city. Thus, any crisis or emergency

situation that occurs on a college campus also affects the surrounding community.

Because of their complex nature, Kennedy (1999) suggests that planning for any type of

crisis that occurs, even if it is merely brief consideration, will be beneficial.

        In August 1990, five students were slain at the University of Florida. At that time,

the university was not equipped with a crisis plan to deal with this type of issue. This

incident led to the drafting of a plan for this crisis as well as a variety of others. Despite

this tragedy, the crisis led to many positive improvements such as increased lighting and

more police patrol. Every year since the deaths, the University of Florida reviews their

crisis plans to determine if there is anything that has occurred over the past year that was

not covered in the original plan and makes necessary adjustments. ―You need to tailor

your plan to your institution. You can’t predict. Stuff happens all the time. You’d better
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be prepared to deal with it,‖ said Linda Gray Vice President and director of news and

public affairs at the University of Florida (originally cited in Kennedy, 1999).

                   Introduction to the Crisis Technology Model (CTM)

       A Crisis Technology Model was developed in response to the research gathered

on the use of technology during crises and the role of technology in creating crisis

management plans. This model categorizes five different levels of technology that can be

divided into three layers. The higher the level of technology an organization has reached,

the better equipped they are for communication. In other words, if an organization, such

as a university, has identified the importance of all levels of the model, they are better

prepared and more flexible in the process of managing a crisis. In our model the top level

of communication is text messaging and short messaging systems (SMS). Once a

university has incorporated these top levels of communication into their crisis plans, the

members of the organization will be better prepared in the event of a crisis.

       An organization also needs to take employee training into consideration if it plans

to implement text messaging into its crisis plan. If employees understand the

technologies and are able to use them, they will be able to work more efficiently during a

crisis situation. Furthermore, the more new media tactics the organization uses to engage

publics in provocative decisions before, during, and after a crisis, the more effective two-

way interaction is between the organization and its public. New media pertains to direct

communication, instead of indirect communication, such as television, radio, or other

types of mass media.

       The model also supports the idea that the greater use of multiple technological

resources in crisis situations, the greater the opportunity for necessary information to
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reach the primary affected public. Having a broader understanding of the technologies

allows for the universities’ crisis management teams to better react in a crisis situation.

In order to comprehend the model, the university needs to first have a basic

understanding of what each layer entails.

       The first layer of the CTM is based on the two lowest, most traditional levels of

communication. Television, radio, and external press releases make up level five, the

lowest level of the model. The second level within this layer includes e- mail, web blogs,

and internal news release. These tools do not guarantee a quick response, and a computer

with internet connection is required. Layer two is composed of technologies in levels

two and three; instant messaging cellular phone calling. Although these are more direct

forms of communication, crisis victims may still experience problems caused by power-

outages or the overcrowding of cellular airwaves. The third layer contains the highest

level of the crisis technology model, text messaging and short message systems (SMS).

       In the event of a crisis, most specifically a situation like Hurricane Katrina, we

have found through our research that flexibility is of utmost importance. Having a crisis

management plan in place is a great way to handle a crisis, but you cannot always predict

what is going to happen, according to the President of Ithaca College. Therefore, what

our model provides is the ability to pass through layers in order to reach the most

effective source of communication. Based on one’s natural reaction, it is his or her

responsibility to decide the most appropriate layer of technology for any given situation.

The model suggests that there are no boundaries between layers, and that although

different levels of technology exist, certain crisis situations require a more advanced form

of communication, rather than the traditional means of indirect, mass communication.
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Therefore, we have identified more direct means of communication in layer two, such as

instant messaging and cell phones, which are advancing every day. Both tools have

proven to be extremely important forms of communication in o ur every day lives.

However, problems regarding layer two still exist, and result in the ―organic‖

development of the third layer 1 . Layer three was used as a last resort when cell providers

were unable to permit the millions of phone calls being placed during the Hurricane

Katrina crisis. Figure 1.1 visually represents this model as an escalator, portraying the

layers of communication in order of significance.




1
    The term organic was coined by an interviewee who is emp loyed in a depart ment of Risk Management.
S.O.S via SMS 8
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Layer One

       Practices, technologies, and tools that are used in crisis communication have been

categorized into three layers and applied to CMPs for natural disasters, such as Hurricane

Katrina. Throughout our interviews with various university personnel who were highly

involved in the formation of their respected crisis communications plans, we conclude

that universities have implemented and used these communication tools to communicate

their crisis plan before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

       Common communicative practices in this layer consist of: press releases,

TV/Radio broadcasts, flyers distributed over campus, and megaphone announcements.

Press releases can be printed and distributed as a hard copy, published on the main web

site of the university, or sent via e- mail. The technology used to make massive audio

announcements by megaphone and speakerphone is utilized by Ithaca College, through

placement of speakerphones on campus safety patrol vehicles. Loyola University places

speakerphones within the dormitories.

       Regular e- mail systems that are used throughout the academic year can also be

used in this particular layer of communication. The Vice President of Student Affairs

and Campus Life of Ithaca College in New York stated that the college has been using

―Intercom Alerts,‖ which are massive e- mails that announce any kind of incident that

affects campus life. The Vice President also revealed that the college’s CMP is being

constantly updated by a small core crisis decision team.

       Pasquini (2005) concedes that with most cellular and landline communications

destroyed or at least temporarily down, those still with internet access use it to

communicate with the outside world. Methods of communication include instant
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messaging, VoIP (voice over internet protocol) calling, and message postings on a

company’s Web site. According to a posting on the Freepress website, WMAH, a local

television network in Mississippi, was ―initially in desperate need of diesel fuel‖ to keep

its generator running and stay on air in order to provide news and survival information

(www.freepress.net). E- mail is a convenient and quick way for students and faculty to

access and respond to messages, and can be updated with news and survival information

in the event of a natural disaster. However, with little or no power, the internet is less

reliable.

        During Hurricane Katrina, one of the main technologies used to communicate

important messages was e-mail. Web interaction was essential to Loyola University’s

CMP for distributing information across a massive audience. However, when the

hurricane landed, the university lost a significant portion of their communication with

constituencies because of the power outages, according to the President of Loyola

University in New Orleans (Telephone interview, December 5 th , 2006)

        Layer one communicative practices and technologies are the most basic forms of

communication that can be used in any crisis, and were revealed to have been included in

all the CMPs we investigated throughout our research. Upon failure of these practices, we

suggest that crisis plans need to incorporate a second layer of practices.

Layer Two

        The development of the second layer relied on new challenges that were faced

regarding communication tactics in layer one. The technologies discussed in layer two

include. The fact that more traditional forms of communication were not effective in
                                                                          S.O.S via SMS 11


crisis situations sparked the realization that new forms of technology were needed : instant

messaging and cell phone.

          These technologies encourage the use of direct communication. In the event of a

crisis, direct communication is a two-way conversation between those experiencing the

crisis and those trying to manage the crisis. Layer two technologies provide a quick

response and real-time interaction. However, instant messaging requires a computer, the

internet, and electricity. If these materials are not available, instant messaging would not

be an effective way to communicate during a crisis (Davies, 2005). As a result, this

model suggests cell phones as the next best tool for communication.

          Similar to instant messaging, cellular phones provide instantaneous

communication and real-time interaction. During Hurricane Katrina, several people

resorted to cell phones as their first choice of communication. Unfortunately, the

abundance of phone calls overcrowded the airwaves, resulting in the service providers’

inability to manage every phone call. Cell phones within the Gulf Coast region became

inoperable, and therefore useless for making or receiving calls (Lipka, 2005). Potential

troubles may also arise from cell phone use during storms, such as high winds interfering

with cell towers and radio waves not transmitting calls. Thus, calling via cell phone is not

always a reliable source of communication during a crisis. Because cell phone calls were

the last form of consistent communication, crisis management teams, as well as victims,

must discover an available technology capable of maintaining communication with

others.

          We have already witnessed the improvements made in organizations through the

use of these communication technologies. Now, these technological improvements need
                                                                                    S.O.S via SMS 12


to be applied to crisis situations. Our model is an illustration of the best communication

practices during a crisis (Seeger, 2006). In order to complete this illustration, we must

explain the remaining layer in our communication model. The third layer incorporates

text messaging, the ―organic process‖2 that occurred when victims were unable to make

cell phones calls. Thus, these victims resorted to text messaging, a form of

communication that can be passed much more easily through airwaves.

Layer Three

          After analyzing various crisis communications plans and conducting numerous

interviews with key figures within the area of crisis management, we were able to gather

information on the lack of text messaging in crisis plans. Because of this lack of effective

communication tactics, Hurricane Katrina forced many schools in the affected region to

update their crisis plans. Of the schools we investigated, most had already implemented

layers one and two of our theoretical framework.

           When examining the crisis plan specifically for Loyola University, layers one and

two of the theoretical framework were exhausted due to the crisis at hand. The failure of

layers one and two had a variety of causes, such as power outages, flooding, destruction

of facilities, and system overloads.

           Therefore, these schools need to implement a new form of communication, which

should be text messaging. SMS is a service provided on most digital mobile phones and

many personal computer systems as a means of sending messages between mobile

phones and other mobile communication devices. SMS stands for Short Messaging

Service, most commonly known as text-messaging. Text- messaging is often an included

feature, available without charge on most modern mobile phones. Text messaging allows
2
    The term organic was coined by an interviewee who is emp loyed in a depart ment of Risk Management.
                                                                          S.O.S via SMS 13


users to compose a message with a maximum of 160 characters, by typing letters using

the number keypad on their phone, and send a message to any user nationally and

internationally (Gupta, 2005). The most common form of SMS messaging is mobile to

mobile, also known as point to point messaging, which is simply sending a message from

one mobile phone to another. A user can also send a message via the Internet to a mobile

phone user.

       Text messages can also be sent from a cell phone to an email address.

Organizations can also use SMS to send mobile phone alerts to mass audiences (Hord,

2006). Text messaging has also become increasingly popular among the youth culture in

the United States. However, the people in the U.S. have been behind in this new

technology in comparison to many countries in Europe and Asia. A recent survey found

that 80 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 own a cell phone, and 65 percent of these cell

phone users use text messaging on a regular basis (Breed, 2006).

       Benefits and drawbacks of text messaging SMS messages, according to Fawcett

of Continuity Central, are less resource intensive than mobile voice calls, so networks can

better cope with increased demand of use. This means the message has a better chance of

getting through even with an inadequate signal (Fawcett, 2006). Text messaging is often

favored in different crisis situations because it does not require continuous access to the

network, and the path by which messages travel is reserved for data only, so it is less

congested (Searcey, Ali, Latour, 2005). SMS is also part of a store and forward

mechanism, so if the receiver is not available to receive the text message, it is saved and

stored until the phone becomes available (Hord, 2006). Cingular, one of the top three

wireless phone providers will store text messages until they can be successfully delivered
                                                                           S.O.S via SMS 14


and received for up to 72 hours (Ulanoff, 2004). This reliable feature allows for simple

messages to be sent quickly in a cost efficient manner to mass audiences with an

increased confidence that the message will be received.

       Despite the better probability of getting through the network, there is no guarantee

that a message will be received after it is sent. This is particularly the case when a

message is being sent across networks. A user can track the receipt of the message by

requesting a confirmation and error alert. However, the receipt does not allow for the

sender to verify if the receiver has read the message or understood the information.

Another drawback of text messaging through a SMS format is the size limitation. With

only 160 characters available, an important message may not fit these constraints, thus

requiring multiple messages to be sent (Fawcett, 2006). The more messages needed, the

greater the probability that a receiver will not get a message or understand what the

messages are telling them to do. This could be critical in a crisis or emergency situation.

                                    SMS Emergency Use

       The benefits and reliability of SMS technology have led to its wide use by

organizations and individuals in emergency and crisis situations. SMS has proved to be a

successful communication tool in the event of a crisis. Because it requires fewer

resources to send and receive messages, people involved in a crisis or emergency

situation have found text-messaging a reliable way to contact loved ones and emergency

personnel.

       On September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks devastated New York City and

Washington D.C., cellular networks were flooded with calls which prevented many from

actually getting a hold of anyone. Text messaging proved to be the most reliable form of
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communication throughout the day. However, according to Harvey Fawcett of Continuity

Central, at the time there was a low general awareness of text- messaging, which means a

stronger knowledge of text- messaging could have provided better communication

(Fawcett, 2006). Ashlee Vance, in an article in PC World Magazine (2001), reported that

employers all over the country were using text messaging and other IP-based (Internet

Protocol) systems to check on workers and loved ones on 9/11. Wireless Knowledge, a

software company with an office in New York City sent a data message to all employees

asking them to respond with their whereabouts via text message. ―It was sort of a virtual

role call‖, said Jeff Ross, Director of Business Development at Wireless Knowledge

(cited originally in Vance, 2001).

       In June 2005, when terrorists attacked the London underground railway system,

residents were advised to use text messaging instead of placing cellular calls because

cellular and land line phone systems had been congested for over three hours. The Wall

Street Journal reported shortly after the attacks that this was an indication that British cell

phone system operators may have not learned a lesson from September 11 in the United

States in regards to telephone traffic (Searcey, Ali, Latour, 2005).

       Other areas of the world are currently adapting SMS as a means of

communicating, possibly based on troubles caused by other crises. The war-torn areas of

Israel are using text messaging to warn residents of incoming missiles. Cellact, an Israeli

telecommunications company has introduced the service as a way to provide critical

information when networks are down and timely warning and distribution is crucial. Text

messaging has also been successful on much smaller scales but has saved the lives of

individual users.
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       Most recently, in October 2006, in Memphis, Tennessee, a woman and her

children were kidnapped by the woman’s ex-boyfriend and taken away by car. The

woman was able to text message her friend using her cellular phone, and the friend

notified the police. The police were able to locate and safely free the woman and children

and arrest the kidnapper (Eyewitness News Memphis, 2006).

       Organizations and governments are increasingly convinced of the benefits that

SMS and text messaging can have in emergency situations and beginning to implement

plans and infrastructure to support this form of communication. SMS is being adapted by

colleges and universities to provide emergency information. San Francisco is one of the

first cities to consider text- messaging as a part of a citywide emergency alert system. The

plan was announced on October 17, 2006 and allows residents to sign up for an alert that

will be sent to their cell phone or mobile device to notify them of an earthquake or crisis

situation. The messaging system will provide evacuation routes and information

regarding severe weather to subscribers, but will also allow these users to notify the city

of their location and any assistance they may require (Vega, 2006).

       On the national level, according to The Associated Press, the Department of

Homeland Security will begin notifying Americans of impending disasters and

emergencies using cellular phone text messages by the end of 2007. This will be the first

revision to the national alert system since its inception in 1951. The current system,

which can only be initiated by the president, uses radio and television broadcast to warn

the nation of situations like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other public hazards

(Jordan, 2006).
                                                                         S.O.S via SMS 17


       Previous to Hurricane Katrina, Loyola University relied heavily on web

technologies, such as e-mail systems and university websites. Other technologies such as

PA systems, TV, radio, cell phones, and electronic printing supplies were also heavily

relied on. However, because of power outages spanning over the entire New Orleans

area, they were cut off from the use of those technologies. In regards to cell phone use,

the large number of calls transmitted throughout the Gulf Coast area created a system

overload, causing cell phone calls to become useless for one week. Thus, the use of text

messaging emerged from the chaos caused by the power outages. In the chaotic situation,

structure and order naturally emerged. For instance, when the power went out during

Hurricane Katrina, university personnel resorted to text messages as an alternative form

of communication.

       When we interviewed Rick Bell, the director of risk management, he mentioned

how text messages were used in replacement of layers one and two of the theoretical

framework; as a result, layer three was ―organically‖ formed to include text messaging.

The term ―organic‖ in this instance refers to the emergence of text messaging when all

other forms planned forms of communication have failed. Through a process of

elimination, Rick Bell and other crisis team members discovered the solution of text-

messaging out of necessity. Rick Bell explained in a telephone interview that text

messaging was ―one of the only ways we could talk‖. Furthermore, Rick Bell noted that

cell phone communication became useless immediately because of downed towers

caused by Hurricane Katrina.

       The reason why text messaging prevailed over other forms of communication was

because it had a lower bandwidth requirement than phone calls. Therefore, more text
                                                                           S.O.S via SMS 18


messages were able to be sent and received compared to the phone calls made that

created the system overload.

                                         Conclusion

        SMS should be used as an additional form of communication for crisis

management. As of yet, Crisis communication plans are either excluding SMS or use it

as a last resort. In terms of CMP procedures, the universities studied have shown that

there is little or no knowledge of the possible uses and benefits of SMS in an emergency

situation.

The Generational Aspect of SMS

        In the event of a hurricane crisis, we have learned that the use of all

communication tools is generational. SMS has not been considered as a viable

communication tool because its use is more prevalent to generation Y or all college-aged

students; a generation to young to have authority in the development of a CMP.

        In the event of a crisis, as our theoretical framework proposes, the more levels of

communication that an organization uses, the better equipped they will be to

communicate during a crisis. Not only is the model beneficial in regards to

interoperability, but it also provides a variety of communication methods to better suit a

set of constituents. In the structural breakdown caused by Hurricane Katrina, our

research has shown that people use the form of communication that works and one they

are most comfortable with. Students and other constituents on university campuses

turned to SMS and text messaging.
                                                                         S.O.S via SMS 19


Limitations

       While conducting research, it became apparent that SMS and its many uses is an

area of technology that has not been thoroughly explored due to its recent adoption by the

United States as a communication tool. Research has shown that text messaging is a

technology limited in use to certain groups with specific demographical characterist ics.

       Due to the fact that this project was created in the context of a crisis management

class at Ithaca College, we were limited to the time span of one academic semester. This

time constraint limited the number of colleges and universities we were able to study in

depth. With more time, we would have been able to broaden the scope of our research, as

well as include more subjects for our studies. Our findings are extensive, however not

exhaustive.

       Another limitation to our research was our location in the central New York State

region. We took into consideration that New York State is not a location prone to

hurricane weather. Generally, we lack a personal understanding of hurricane

experiences. The knowledge we gained in the process became meaningful after

conducting interviews with administrators and officials from universities in hurricane

areas. We were then able to compare these shared experiences with the information we

gathered from our initial research.

       SMS is a fairly recent communication tool in the United States. While text

messaging is considered a commonplace form of communication in foreign regions, the

majority of the U.S. population is still unfamiliar with the tool. Even less is known about

the use SMS in the event of a crisis. Most recently, within the last few years,

organizations and cities are beginning to incorporate SMS based communication into
                                                                         S.O.S via SMS 20


their CMPs. It is difficult to determine if SMS will continue to gain popularity and if

usage will continue to increase in the United States or if it is a communication fad and

soon be replaced by a newer more innovation tool.

Recommended for further research

       In the aftermath of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the necessity for

sustainable communication systems became clear to all. Cell phones, satellite phones,

and walkie-talkie phones are useful, but only if the services are not overloaded, as they

may be in an emergency. For this reason, many service carriers and organizations have

completed considerable work to tighten their disaster recovery plans.

       While completing extensive research, we recognized several subjects related to

the focus of our paper. The section below is a list of suggested topics for further in-depth

research:

               The effectiveness of SMS technology – advantages and disadvantages

               Personal and social awareness, attitudes and perceptions towards the use

                of SMS technology

               Personal communication preference/methods for communicating with

                colleagues, family members and friends not only during crisis situations

                but also in everyday life

               Structural improvements on both corporate and governmental levels

       National carriers such as Sprint/Nextel, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Verizon, in

preparation for future disaster situations, are expanding the scope of their emergency

response teams in terms of technological security to help public-safety agencies

coordinate communications during emergencies. Moreover, Sprint/Nextel is creating a
                                                                       S.O.S via SMS 21


complex backup system that combines generator technology and fuel to provide a variety

of communication tools, including satellite services and iDEN (Integrated Digital

Enhanced Network), in case of a crisis situation.
                                                                        S.O.S via SMS 22


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Fawcett, H. (2006, September 22). Communicating in a crisis—which technologies can

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Gupta, P. (2005). Short messaging service: What, how, where? Wireless Developer

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Kennedy, M. (1999, October). Surviving a crisis. American School & University, 42 b-e

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Searcey, D., Ali, S., & Latour, A. (2005, July 8). Amid crisis, phones jammed, but text

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Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process.

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                                    Additional Reading

Allen, M., Jerome, A., White, A., Marston, S., Lamb, S., Pope, D. & Rawlins, C. (2002).

       The preparation of school psychologists for crisis intervention. Psychology in

       Schools, 39, 4, 427-439.

Anonymous. (2006). It’s not the crisis that counts, it’s the way the crisis is handled.

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