Virginia has gone mobile in its effort to keep citizens informed about statewide emergencies and disaster planning.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) launched the Ready Virginia mobile app earlier this month, featuring a variety of notification and planning amenities that can be used in the event of a flood, hurricane or other catastrophe.

Elements of the app include location-specific weather watches and warnings and flood information issued by the National Weather Service; disaster news from the VDEM; maps detailing where open American Red Cross shelters are; evacuation routes and storm surge zones; a template to create family emergency plans; and various informational links.

According to VDEM spokesman Bob Spieldenner, the idea to create an app was spawned by the impact of Hurricane Irene in 2011. He said the department noticed that many people were accessing state information on the storm from their smartphones and at the time, the VDEM website wasn’t optimized for heavy mobile device use.

Fortunately for Virginia, it didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when developing the application. Georgia created a similar app a couple of years ago and offered the code to all other states that wanted it. The VDEM jumped on it, and Spieldenner indicated the state spent less than $50,000 to make Virginia-specific changes to the program. The department also created a mobile-friendly version of its website.

The VDEM was also able to use the same vendor Georgia had for the project — Vert Mobile, based in Atlanta. Development of the department’s app took approximately six or seven months, and is available on both iPhone and Android devices.

Spieldenner hopes both the emergency planning and weather alert features are used regularly by those who download the app.

“We think it’s important to be able to stay up to date with information and have a better sense of what is going on,” Spieldenner said. “That’s always one of the keys during any emergency. People always want information and want to know what is going on. So this is one more way to help them.”

While the app is available for public download, changes to it continue behind the scenes. Little tweaks are being made such as how the app’s background color appears on some Android phones are being fixed, and Vert is addressing some minor issues regarding access to the National Weather Service data.

As of Jan. 28, the app had been downloaded more than 5,600 times, and Spieldenner expects that number to grow the same way the VDEM’s website traffic does prior to or during an emergency. During a relatively quiet month, the department’s website gets about 25,000 visitors, but that number can balloon as high as 150,000 during an emergency or significant event.

Looking ahead, the VDEM isn’t planning any significant changes to the app, but as technology evolves, that may change. Right now, Spieldenner expects much of the work on the app to be routine maintenance. But that could change if the app is deemed successful.

“Something we would like to expand on is working with localities to get their information out,” Spieldenner said. “Some of the bigger communities are interested in potentially doing their own [app], but they’re all kind of waiting to see how it goes with ours and anything they can learn.”

Main image: A snapshot of the Ready Virginia mobile app. Courtesy of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.