According to the most recent Pew Internet Research survey, more than half of American adults own a smartphone. An American Red Cross survey published last summer showed that 25 percent of the public would download an emergency app in case of a bad weather event.
And the public sector has gotten the word. Many state and local and governments are developing mobile apps to connect residents with critical emergency-related information. While they take many forms, most try to customize information based on the risks inherent in their particular areas, and many also make key data available offline in the event that connectivity is jeopardized in an emergency situation.
Last fall, after Tropical Storm Sandy hit the East Coast, local officials quickly realized that power outages and lack of Internet access was causing people to rely on their smartphones for information.
“Mobile’s the way to go. Everyone’s looking at their smartphones these days,” said Monmouth County, N.J., Sheriff Shaun Golden, who spoke to Government Technology about the emergency app his office released last month.
Monmouth County, with more than 27 miles of coastline, is one of the largest counties in New Jersey. The storm caused billions of dollars in property damage, left thousands of people homeless and brought prolonged power outages.
“We were the hardest hit county in the state of New Jersey,” Golden said.
Golden's office helped evacuate 75,000 residents before the storm and sheltered 3,000 after the storm, when the county went two weeks without power.
“A lot of people were using their phones and staying in touch with their phones,” he said. That was when the department decided it needed to design an app for its residents.
Golden's office communicated with residents via Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in the aftermath, with great results. It’s a lesson the sheriff applied to the development of the new application.
“The app allowed us to bring our social media … all in one place so they are readily available,” he said. “This will be a one-stop shop for us.”
Developed by Alabama-based tech firm OCV, the app is designed to look like Windows 7, featuring its hallmark flat tiles.
According to Golden, Monmouth County is the first sheriff's office in the state to launch its own app.
Released to the public in late October in a soft launch, the app was downloaded 1,000 times in the first two weeks. Feedback from the public was immediate, and positive.
The department spent $5,000 to develop the app, which is a customized version of other emergency apps on the market, including the MyEMA app.
“We kind of took a little bit of everything,” Golden said.
In addition to emergency response, Golden explained that the need to project messages to the public before storms hit is a critical part of his department’s mission.
Besides the notifications and alerts, the app also allows the public to text in anonymous crime tips, receive traffic updates and Amber Alerts and search for inmates -- Monmouth County has the largest prison facility in the state.
Additionally, the sheriff said the county is in the midst of building a new fusion center – where all of the data that comes in will be centralized under one roof, including crime analytics, emergency management information and other data deemed critical to the department’s mission.
“It’s cutting edge for New Jersey,” he said. “We’re going to continue to lead the way in technology.”