Thanks to smartphones and the apps made for them, emergency managers and the public they serve now have a wealth of help at their fingertips for almost any disaster scenario. They can look up the effects of toxic chemicals, brush up on first aid, find the nearest shelters or turn their phone into a flashlight. Apps filled with reference material and up-to-the-minute data can help them respond to an emergency.
“The goal is to get the right information in the right hands at the right time,” said Scot Phelps, professor of disaster science at the Emergency Management Academy in New York. One example is a first aid app offered by the American Red Cross: “You can get some people to take a first aid class, but you can get millions of people to take one minute to install an app.”
Apps have opened up new avenues for communicating with the public, said Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“We’re always trying to get information to people to help them prepare for disasters and to get them to understand real-time information: Here’s the evacuation route, here’s the shelter information, here’s where the tornado is,” said Koon. “Now if people are in their car evacuating, they can go to an app and find out where the shelter is. If they’re at a store, they can pull up what should be in a disaster kit.”
The availability of smartphones and apps has been a big change for emergency managers.
“Ten years ago, we would be on our desktop computers,” Phelps said. “Now disaster managers can access a humongous amount of information from their phones, no matter where they are.”
In fact, there are so many apps that it can be overwhelming to sort through them all, or to find the emergency preparedness apps among the latest games.
It’s first helpful to understand the different types of apps available. Some are stand-alone: They may provide reference material on everything from hazardous materials to pharmaceuticals. Many of these are basically reference books that are now available as an app — with the added benefit of being more portable and searchable.
Other apps give responders access to an emergency management department’s software system.
“We have in the state of Florida software for logistics management for disasters,” said Chuck Hagan, state logistics chief for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “It’s a huge application.” It manages every resource, from the warehouse to field operations to shipping and receiving. Now an app available for Android phones and iPhones gives users access to the system without being at their computers. “It’s a mobile access portal back to a much larger, robust application.”
Experts offer these recommendations for specific apps or types of apps that are worth considering adding to your smartphone or recommending to the public as well. For most apps mentioned, a simple Web search will turn up a site where they can be downloaded.
Local apps. One of the keys to preparedness for both the public and emergency responders is to know what is happening locally. Some local jurisdictions have created their own apps, such as Ready NYC (Apple/Android) and SD Emergency by ReadySanDiego.
“The importance of tailoring it to the local hazards is that it adds to the credibility and makes it more relevant,” said Francisco Sánchez Jr., public information officer for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Houston. More general apps can certainly be helpful, but people want the most relevant information at their fingertips. “Tapping and clicking has made us lazy. We don’t want to scroll through 30 disasters to find the one that’s relevant to us.”
Many more general apps also help emergency responders and the public stay on top of local events. These include Twitter, Instagram and local news sources like television stations and newspapers. Some experts also recommend police scanner apps, but check laws in your state to make sure the apps are legal there.
Finally, see if your local utility company has an app. The app My conEdison, for example, can help customers of that New York City utility report and get information on outages.
Maps and weather. These apps are helpful even when there’s not an emergency. Google Maps, Waze and iOS Maps all provide traffic information as well as maps. Weather information is also helpful. “There are seemingly thousands of weather apps,” said Adam Crowe, director of emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. This helps both first responders and the public prepare for bad weather even when they’re not in front of a computer or TV. The Weather Channel is one place to start, or search for “best weather apps” and determine what will best meet your needs.
Flashlight. This function is built in on some newer phones and is an app on others. “We’ve pushed for years for people to have a flashlight and batteries,” Crowe said. “But having a flashlight on your phone is quick, free and easy.”
Note-taking and recording. Many productivity tools aimed at a general audience are extremely useful for emergency managers. For example, Phelps counts several of them among his most useful apps, including: Evernote for uploading files, photos, audio and notes into one place; ColorNote to make quick task lists; AudioNote for recording notes on the iPad; the 37signals (now called Basecamp) suite of tools for project management, contact management and chat; and Incident Command Table (Apple/Android) to plot events on Google Maps.
Emergency prep apps. The American Red Cross and FEMA both provide apps that are useful. The Red Cross’ applications are listed at www.redcross.org/prepare/mobile-apps, and include apps for finding shelters and instructions for performing first aid. FEMA’s app is at www.fema.gov/smartphone-app.
Technical apps. A number of more specialized apps are designed for first responders or citizens with a particular interest in emergency preparedness. The National Library of Medicine has a Web page that lists many of these: disasterinfo.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/disasterapps.html. The page includes apps like Mobile REMM for responding to radiation, WISER for responding to hazardous materials, and links to a number of disaster-specific resources including the American Red Cross’ apps for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. There’s also a link to an app from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tracks flu outbreaks.
Beyond the apps already available, emergency managers can consider putting together their own app for the public to download.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity for emergency managers, because of the proliferation of smartphones and the ease with which we can now get information directly to our citizens,” Koon said. “It’s easier than ever before.”
Crowe said emergency management has been “behind the curve” when it comes to using apps to communicate with the public. But there is an opportunity to change that.
Creating apps isn’t cheap, Koon said, but there are many people available who know how to do it.
Koon does have some concerns about the idea of emergency management departments rushing to create their own apps for the public to download. Getting people to download and use an app requires marketing, since the app is “just one of thousands of different things out there,” he said. “The chance is that we’ll do too many apps. I’m concerned that we’ll all spend lots of our own dollars on this, with maybe not the ROI that is possible if we collaborated.”
Emergency management departments should consider joining forces with nearby jurisdictions to develop better apps and marketing strategies. “If you dilute it too much, perhaps we’re not accomplishing what we could,” Koon said.
There are other caveats regarding both creating and using apps in emergency management.
For example, when an emergency management department creates its own app, is it overlooking existing apps? One strategy, Koon said, is for emergency management departments to work on feeding data to apps that are already being used — sending shelter location information to mapping apps, for example — instead of creating their own and hoping people will download and use them.
“Should we be creating that last mile to the user, or should we be putting the data out there so the right people pick it up and put it in their product?” he said.
It’s important for several reasons to not become overly dependent on apps and smartphones.
For one thing, only a certain percentage of the population will download a preparedness app and then remember to check it when an emergency actually happens. “People who are downloading an app on public safety are probably already well connected,” Sánchez said.
Another key concern is what happens when cellphone towers are taken out during an emergency and smartphones can no longer connect to the Internet. While some apps will work without access to a cellular or wireless network, not all do.
“For disasters and emergencies, that’s critical to know,” said Stacey Arnesen, branch chief for the Disaster Information Management Research Center at the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
It’s worth spending some time with critical apps to figure out how they will function without connectivity.
The NLM includes on its site an explanation of the types of apps and how they will perform in an emergency: Native, or stand-alone, apps store content on the mobile device, so they keep functioning even without an Internet connection. Web apps — including those that use the user’s location to customize data — will work only when connected to the Internet. And mobile Web links are simply links to Web pages, optimized to work well on a mobile device. These also require Internet connectivity.
Some apps have certain content that stays on the phone and other functions that require an Internet connection. A few apps explain this, but for most, “the thing we found most useful is to put it in airplane mode” and try using it, said Jennifer G. Pakiam, a technical information specialist at the NLM. That way you’ll see exactly how useful — or not useful — the app will be if your Internet connection goes down.
Finally, remember that mobile devices need power to run. “We have to be careful that we’re not totally dependent on any one system,” Hagan said. “Your battery may die; we may lose cell towers. We keep a lot of books around here for when the computers crash or we lose connectivity.”
Despite these drawbacks, though, mobile apps have great potential for helping emergency managers in responding to emergencies and reaching the public.
“They can help us with reports, checklists, geolocation and situational awareness,” Sánchez said. “Almost all of our phones can download an app. I think apps would allow us to work across jurisdictions and across organizations and provide a common platform.”
And for the public, they also provide a new level of emergency preparedness, Sánchez said. “For the spontaneous emergency, you might not be home, but you do have your mobile device with you.”