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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 08:05 GMT 09:05 UK
Mobiles to save disaster victims
An avalanche roars down a mountainside, AP
Rescuers must work quickly after avalanches strike
Your mobile phone could soon help the emergency services rescue you if you are caught in an avalanche or earthquake.

Researchers are developing a system that will make all mobile phones in a disaster area emit an alarm tone to help locate their owner.

A beeping handset could guide rescue workers to people buried under snow or trapped inside a collapsed building.

The system's developers say it could help rescue workers find people in the vital first few minutes after disaster strikes.

Calling for help

Scientists from Toshiba's research labs in Bristol have come up a way to exploit the ubiquity of the mobile phone to help find victims in disasters.

A snowboarder, Eyewire
A snowboarding trip got researchers thinking about a rescue system
"If anything goes wrong people are more likely to have a GSM or 3G terminal with them than anything else," said Joe McGeehan, managing director of Toshiba's telecommunications research lab.

The system suggested by Toshiba would make all the phones caught up in a disaster area ring loudly.

Those lucky enough to escape the disaster, be it an avalanche or earthquake, could turn off the ringtone but others trapped could leave it on to guide rescue workers to them.

The system exploits features of the GSM mobile phone system used in more than 170 countries around the world.

Fast response

GSM network software records the identity of the last cell that a handset connected to making it easy to quickly activate all the phones in a disaster area.

You have 15 minutes to find the people under the avalanche and save them
Craig Dolwin, Toshiba researcher
Handsets for GSM networks also constantly listen to a broadcast channel to see if any messages or alerts are being transmitted to them.

Prof McGeehan said exploiting these aspects of the GSM network could easily create an emergency alert system.

The only changes that would have to be made to handsets to get them working with the system would be to download a small program that signs them up.

Toshiba principal researcher Craig Dolwin, who came up with the idea for the rescue system while planning a snowboarding trip, said it could help locate survivors in the first few minutes after an avalanche strikes.

"You have 15 minutes to find the people under the avalanche and save them," he said.

After 15 minutes the chance of someone surviving being buried in the snow drop off rapidly, he added.

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