When disaster strikes, regular lines of communication are often cut, making it difficult for folks outside of the disaster zone to find out if loved ones are safe. Over the last several years, social media mavens have turned to Facebook and other sites to check on loved ones or to notify loved ones that they are safe. Facebook noticed, and the company is turning the option into a tool to connect loved ones when an emergency occurs.

The tool, called Safety Check, will be available worldwide, connecting the site's 1.32 billion users on computers and mobile devices. This includes the basic phones many people use to access Facebook, especially in developing countries. The idea for Safety Check came from a disaster message board that Facebook engineers created in 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

So how does Safety Check differ from a standard status update? For starters, you have to activate the tool on Facebook. Once you do, Facebook attempts to pinpoint your location using the city listed in your profile, the last location you shared in a status update, or the city where you are accessing the Internet. If reports show that you are in an affected area, you'll receive a Safety Check message asking if you're OK. If you respond yes, a notification will be sent to all of your Facebook friends. If you're not in the area, you can let Facebook know that, too. And users can also mark their friends as safe, but the at-risk friend has to approve the status. Friends and family members can search Safety Check to see who has checked in.

Let's hope that no one has to use Facebook's Safety Check feature anytime soon — but odds are, the need will arise at some point. When it does, it will hopefully transform the way family and friends stay connected during an emergency.

Here's more about Safety Check in this Facebook video:

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Facebook's new Safety Check feature lets friends and family know you're OK after disaster strikes
The idea grew out of disaster message boards that sprung up on Facebook after Japan's most recent natural disaster.