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Why Use Mobile (SMS) for Disaster Relief and Recovery

It has been a whopper of a hurricane season, first with Harvey and now Irma. Plus two more storms, Jose and Katia are not far behind. Harvey recovery is still underway with non-profits and government entities collaborating on the ground to support those in shelters impacted by the storm and to help build back up the areas destroyed. The same will begin once Irma passes through Florida and Georgia. This type of relief and recovery work takes a lot of coordination between multiple agencies, non-profits, volunteers and refugees who cannot return home. Mobile (SMS) technology, or texting platforms that enable mass texting are the perfect tool to help with organizing and communication in a relief and recovery situation. 

Here are a couple reasons why Mobile is the best tool to use:

More importantly several mobile platform providers are letting organizations use their tools for free for relief and recovery (more details below). Therefore cost is not an issue, or an excuse not to try implementing it. 

There are plenty of examples for when mobile can be applied to a recovery and relief need:

  • When you have herds of volunteers coming into the area to help and need to dispatch them to certain areas.
  • When you need to make sure all 2,000 people in a relief shelter are getting important updates/announcements.
  • When you need to coordinate grass-tops communications between agencies and non-profits on the ground.

So first determine what your need is. Then you can figure out what kind of mass texting platform would most efficiently help you meet that need.

Peer-to-Peer vs. Broadcast Mobile

There are two types of mass texting that can be utilized in a relief and recovery scenario. Here is a basic breakdown on the differences between them.

  Peer-to-Peer Broadcast
PLATFORM: 1:1 – One 10 digit # messaging another Application to Person – platform using a 5 digit short code messaging many numbers
HOW: Person must manually send each individual message. Person can use the application/platform to send one message to multiple people.
OPT-IN: NOT Mandatory Mandatory
CAPACITY: Need multiple volunteers/staff to implement, and at least one staffer to manage the platform/lists. Only need one person to manage the platform and mobile program.
COST: Pay per user/mobile number and get unlimited SMS to that user (MMS extra). Pay for monthly or annual platform usage and a # of SMS/MMS messages/mo.
EXAMPLE: Hustle, Relay, etc. Mobile Commons, Revere Suite, HubDial, Twilio, etc.

Keep in mind that peer-to-peer and broadcast mobile platforms can and should be used differently for crisis and recovery scenarios. So once again, its important to think about your specific need and determine the appropriate mobile tool/platform to use based on the circumstances.

  • Broadcast SMS requires an opt-in but offers a wider range of functionality including data toolsets that can be accessed by keyword like FEMA’s shelter location tool (example provided below). It can also be used to organize an existing list of supporters quickly.
  • Peer-to-peer SMS does not require an opt-in and is good for volunteer communication & organizing as well as reach ANY mobile number you have to make sure everyone is safe and accounted for.
Mobile Platforms: Free Use for Recovery Efforts

All the major mobile providers are offering resources and most are providing FREE use of their platforms for the relief effort (details below). Please feel free to share this information with the organizations you work with so they can best utilize these tools in their efforts on the ground. All of the vendors and myself are happy to offer up any guidance on how to best use these platforms in the current Harvey & Irma relief and recovery efforts.

Mobile Commons (Broadcast & Keyword):

Mobile Commons offered their platform to relief organizations during the aftermath of Sandy, and is again offering use of their platform for FREE to organizations involved with the Harvey Relief effort. Contact Ti Chesley at if you are interest in utilizing keywords via text to provide information/resources.

Revere Suite (Broadcast & Keyword):

Revolution Messaging has been working with FEMA to help with shelter lookups via mobile already. You all are encouraged to push this out over social media and email: Text SHELTER and a Zip Code to 43362 (4FEMA)

Hustle (Peer-to-Peer):

Hustle is offering their platform for free to any organization who wants to utilize mobile for relief efforts and organizing on the ground. It’s all outlined in their post on Medium: “Hustle stands with Houston: Announcing Hustle’s Disaster Relief Efforts for Houston.” Please contact Meghan Apfelbaum at if you have any questions.

Relay (Peer-to-Peer):

For existing Relay Clients: If you are using P2P texting as part of your hurricane response, Relay will allow you to send those messages free of charge. This could involve identification of those in need of aid, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, or any other relief-related texting. To receive this discount, please fill out this form to tell us which of your campaigns were hurricane relief related, and we’ll remove those campaigns from your August or September bills.

For other community organizations that want to get setup with a free Relay account for their relief/recovery efforts please contact Jon Warnow at

I hope everyone will take advantage of the mobile tools available to aid in the current recovery effort in Houston and the upcoming relief and recovery in Florida. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to email

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