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Emergency or Disaster? There’s an App for That

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By George C. Labonte
April 1, 2016

Notification technologies for both natural disasters and human-made emergencies have advanced greatly throughout the past few years. However, the rapid rate of technological advancement has led to questions about which notification technologies are the most effective in reaching the public and assisting those responsible for response and recovery. To determine the efficiency of notification technologies, emergency management agencies are collaborating with software developers to create mobile apps that will help first responders and keep the public informed of the crisis. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has created such an app for public safety alert notifications and weather warnings and watches. The technology uses the GPS location in a person’s smart phone to push relevant notifications.

In a phone interview, Christopher Besse, MEMA’s social media and public information officer, stated, “If you live in Springfield but are visiting Boston, the app will notify you of any alerts for the Boston area based on your smart phone GPS.” Changes can be made to the app’s settings to only push notifications when you (with your smart phone) are in Massachusetts, avoiding alerts that would not directly affect you. Not only do mobile apps contain vital information in assisting in emergency and disaster relief, but they can also assist public administrators in disseminating information out to the public.

An example of how invaluable emergency notification apps are during large events is the Boston Marathon. During the 2013 marathon bombing, MEMA used their app after the bombing to notify and provide safety information to the public. Days after the initial incident, notifications were sent out to advise residents and the public of the “shelter in place” order given by authorities and for the shutdown of the public transportation system. These alerts were pushed out to tourists and runners, based on their location, who had the MEMA app downloaded on their phone or other devices. The app validated its importance as a great tool for public administrators to utilize in warning residents of potential dangers and how the public could assist public safety personnel.

While technology has advanced, it is only as good as the people who subscribe to it. Besse indicated 90,000 people have downloaded the MEMA app. In Massachusetts, this equates to just above one percent of the population. He explained the best way to reach as many people as possible during an emergency or disaster is to use as many platforms as possible. Facebook and Twitter are only effective to individuals who follow them and mobile apps are only good for the people who download them. Furthermore, during an incident, Internet may not be available or sites may be overloaded with traffic, making the user unable to access information. Reverse 911, television and radio are often considered antiquated methods of reaching the public during a time of crisis, yet they are extremely useful when Internet capabilities are offline.

app-1013616_640There are other mobile apps that allow for offline access to assist administrators, first responders and the public. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has developed several apps for emergency responders, ranging from hazardous material detection to a lost person finder. These apps can be beneficial to public administrators during a crisis in coordinating response and recovery efforts. According to Simon, Goldberg and Adini, where social media was initially used by the general public to communicate, it is now being adopted by emergency responders, government and non-governmental organizations as a tool for disaster management. Additionally, Palen and Liu noted, after a disaster occurs, public participation and volunteerism increases. The authors found using social media as a channel for communication results in a more organized and effective effort from volunteers. Simon, et al. also assert, “An organized response to disaster management is crucial to mitigating loss of lives and damage to infrastructure.”

It is also highly recommended the public download the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app, which is useful because it has both online and offline technology. While offline, the app can provide tips on how to prepare for over a dozen types of natural disasters and what items to use for an emergency kit. While online, up to five locations can be entered in for weather alerts. By allowing for more than one location to be inputted, it lets you be notified of alerts in a loved one’s area if they live elsewhere. Under the section of disaster reporter, you can take a photo and display it publically on a map. These photos can be viewed by public officials to determine best response and recovery strategies.

While emerging advances in cellular service infrastructure continue to make apps and social media more stable for emergency purposes, it has been suggested that it is not a replacement for systems currently in place. In their 2011 article, published in the New England Journal of Medicine for example, Merchant and his colleagues caution against using social media and mobile apps as a replacement for current systems.  Rather, if used properly, social media and apps can enhance communications between administrators, responders and the general public.  In doing so, it will increase the ability to prepare, prevent and protect as well as enhance response and recovery from natural disasters and human-made emergencies.


Author: George C. Labonte is a lieutenant for the Wrentham Police Department in Massachusetts. He is currently enrolled in the Masters of Public Administration program at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.  He can be reached via email at [email protected].  

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Emergency or Disaster? There’s an App for That

  1. John Reply

    May 11, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for sharing this. I agree that mobile apps and the like are certainly not a replacement for the current emergency systems in place right now, but I think that it’s a step in the right direction for developing ways to reach more people as soon as possible. It’ll be interesting to see how the industry continues to develop these solutions in the coming years.

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