Technology is continually expanding and ever changing. The first cellphones were large, difficult to carry, and in some cases had to be transported in a suitcase. As technology advanced, cellphones became small enough to fit into pants or shirt pockets. The trend is now reversing back to large phones designed to store substantial amounts of information and to display the data on oversized screens. Many, if not most, people with cellphones have enormous amounts of information about their lives stored on this single device. People rely on their cellphones to wake them, deliver the morning news, and keep them on track throughout the day. When cell towers cease to function after a disaster, those who rely so heavily on these devices still could utilize their cellphones beyond the traditional method. There are now applications (apps) on the market that do not require a cellular connection and can provide the owner with useful information and even connectivity to emergency and community services.
People, Pets & Emergency Response
The first app to consider allows chatting with those who are in the immediate area. This app is particularly valuable after a disaster if the cell towers are down, overloaded, or an Internet/Wi-Fi connection is not available. One app to consider for this purpose is FireChat, which works off a peer-to-peer mesh network that is formed when devices are within 200 feet of each other. With Bluetooth enabled, the cellphone can connect to other people who also have the app open. The more people with the app operating on their phones, the further the communication can reach. Each added device becomes a link in the chain to build a robust communication network. Another feature of this app is that, if any device in the chain has Internet access, the communication can be shared online. This is a great way to share shelter locations and other critical information after a disaster. A recent use of this app occurred in the 2014 Hong Kong protests when the government shut down the Internet and cell towers. Protestors were able to coordinate the protest movement through FireChat.
Following a disaster, children are among the most vulnerable, especially when separated from their guardians. In one case, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it took nearly seven months to reunite the last child with her guardians. To aid law enforcement when a child goes missing, parents and guardians should consider the FBI Child app, which allows a parent or guardian to add a photo of the child,entifying characteristics, as well as guardian name and contact information. If cell towers are working, FBI Child has the added feature of easily emailing the child’s information to the law enforcement officer working on the case.
Other vulnerable members of the family are pets, which can become scared and break out of their yards or cages. In addition, when time is of the essence to evacuate a disaster area, sometimes pets cannot be located quickly, which means they may be left behind. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has developed a free mobile app to help locate lost pets. The ASPCA app works similarly to the FBI Child app, but is designed specifically for pets. The app allows users to add a photo as well as information such as name, breed, color, weight, and microchip number – a unique way toentify an animal and return it to its owner. The app also allows pet owners to store vital medical records, receive guidance on how to locate a lost pet, and other tasks that can be performed before, during, and after a disaster.
After a disaster, there is a possibility that 911 may not work. Therefore, access to medical assistance may be unavailable. At these times, basic first aid may be necessary to help family and friends. Even when community members receive training through the Red Cross, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), or any other nationally recognized program, this knowledge may be forgotten during a disaster. The Red Cross has developed a free app, First Aid by American Red Cross, to provide step-by-step instructions for the most common first aid emergencies. The Red Cross app also includes videos to show many of the procedures.
Many Apps, With Many More Possibilities
These four apps are only a few of the resources that can help community members in the aftermath of a disaster. However, it is important to plan effectively before a disaster in order to allow for greater empowerment after a disaster. On a final note, although these apps work without cell service, they still require a charged cellphone battery. Each disaster kit should include a charging device, such as a small solar panel charger, a hand-crank flashlight that the charger cable can plug into, or even a camping stove equipped with USB ports. These stoves convert heat to electricity through a thermoelectric generator. To ensure that an app will work during a power outage or disruption in cellular service, community members should carefully plan, evaluate, and test the various options available.
Anjila Lebsock has been the emergency services coordinator for the City of Palm Springs since 2011. As the emergency services coordinator, she is responsible for the five phases of emergency management (prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery), serves as program manager and instructor of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), oversees grant management, and serves as Basic Life Support (BLS) instructor and training center coordinator for the city’s American Heart Association Training Center. She holds a master’s degree in environmental technology management with an emphasis in emergency management and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Arizona State University. She has completed the required courses and training by the International Association of Emergency Managers to be a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM). She also has completed her California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI) Emergency Management Specialist Certificate.