Innovations in Emergency Preparedness On the Go

October 18th, 2013 by Danielle Lueking

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Co-Authored by Amanda Eddy, CHHS Research Assistant
Our smartphones and tablets are constantly at hand – whether making a call, checking the latest sports score, or catching up on news.  They are a convenient way to stay connected to friends, family and the rest of the world.  But three recent mobile innovations are also taking emergency preparedness to the next level. One currently in the development phases in China, another through a well-known social media tool, and one right here in CHHS’ home-state through a new app.
Yesterday, October 17 at 10:17am, more than 24 million people across the world participated in the Great ShakeOut – an awareness event encouraging earthquake preparedness. Certain areas are more prone to earthquakes than others, but like all potential natural hazards you never know where the next one will strike. That’s where a new technology currently being tested in China might help.
The smartphone app, an early warning system, would rely on pre-distributed sensors and the GPS location of your cell phone to alert you up to 25 seconds before the quake hits.  Giving users valuable time to Drop, Cover and Hold On. While sensors are already used in parts of the world for early detection, most alert systems rely on traditional public broadcasts and are not individualized to a person’s exact location.
Inspired by governments’ and organizations’ use of Twitter during emergencies such as Superstorm Sandy, the tsunami in Japan, and the manhunt for the Boston Marathon Bomber, Twitter rolled out one of its latest features, Twitter Alerts, on September 25.
Twitter Alerts allow users to receive emergency information from vetted sources as push notifications or text messages. Twitter has over half a billion users, and hundreds of thousands more are signing up each day. Its prevalence makes Twitter Alerts an effective way for participants like the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and law enforcement agencies to get critical information out to followers affected by emergencies such as warnings of imminent danger, evacuation directions, information on critical outages, and access to essential resources. The system got its first test on October 3 after shots were fired at the Capitol. The Senate Sergeant at Arms used Twitter Alerts to inform followers in the area to shelter in place after reports of gunshots on Capitol Hill, and later to give the all-clear when the situation was under control.
To ensure information being sent over Twitter Alerts is accurate, Twitter requires organizations wishing to participate to complete an application, but that’s not all. Organizations are also required to increase the security of their Twitter account to ensure any alerts sent on behalf of the organization are genuine. As of the date of launch, over 100 global non-profits and government agencies from the US, Japan, and Korea were already registered and could send alerts, and the list is growing as groups eager to harness the power of this social media tool continue to be vetted.
Don’t have Twitter? Many emergency management agencies are developing localized mobile apps. Just last week the Maryland Emergency Management Agency announced their own state-wide Maryland Prepares tool designed to provide iPhone, iPad, and Android users access to emergency preparedness information right on their mobile devices. Similar to Twitter Alerts, the Maryland Prepares app allows users to view real-time alerts for emergencies, weather and even traffic. But this app doesn’t stop at emergency response, it also assists in preparedness. For example, Maryland Prepares allows users to make a communication plan, provides interactive checklists for disaster supply kits, and even enables users to send an “I’m Safe” message through email, text, and social networks.
These are not the first mobile outreach efforts in the world of emergency management, and they will certainly not be the last.  Wireless Emergency Alerts became available in 2012 through FEMA; the American Red Cross alone has seven different apps to aid in disaster preparedness and relief; most emergency management agencies across the US have made social media a primary tool in their crisis communications efforts because of the quick access to millions of users; and even CHHS staffers have supported projects that included the development of policies governing emergency preparedness apps. With so many options to receive alerts on the go, it’s important that you find what works best for you, and then be sure to use those tools to prepare, respond, and recover when the time comes.
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