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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Driving during and after a disaster or major weather event is clearly dangerous. But finding your route blocked by a fallen tree, impassable roads or dangerous electrical wires should not be something you have to worry about. Unfortunately, countless Americans find themselves in this predicament every year. However, developing a mobile app to provide real-time info for potentially hazardous or lethal situations could prove very useful.
FEMA’s Mobile App Provides Some Useful Information for Communities
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), released an app in 2011 and offered its most recent version released in April 2019. Existing features in this mobile app include:
- Real-time alerts
- The ability to share real-time notifications via text, email and social media
- The location of open emergency shelters and disaster recovery centers
- A crowdsourced area to upload disaster photos and share disaster-related information, allowing citizens and first responders to view and contribute information on a publicly accessible map
However, FEMA’s app falls short of what Americans need in order to navigate safely during disasters – real-time information provided by the government and private infrastructure companies. In its current configuration, this type of information depends mainly on static data with the exception of the uploaded photos.
FEMA does have an online mapping tool that predicts flooding, based on the location you type into it. However, it does not indicate exactly where water is during a flood. In addition, this online mapping tool is not available in a mobile app.
Real-Time Information from Apps Varies Widely
Real-time information available through various apps varies widely. Some of the mobile apps that provide practical assistance for residents and first responders require crowdsourced information. For example, apps such as Waze allow users to add information about road delays.
Similarly, Google Maps and Apple Maps show the best routes and the estimated time of arrival as well as redirect you to faster routes, but these apps rely on input from multiple people. They are often based on traditional traffic patterns, not those you would experience when the road is blocked by fallen trees or covered with deep snow.
Similarly, local utility companies provide apps with outage maps and estimated times of power restoration. Individual companies have apps that inform customers if they are open if they have items in stock. One app also provides real-time location sharing information.
Several apps provide information on available shelter. One social sharing app connects people in need with those who can provide temporary shelters during emergencies or evacuation events. Hosts can turn their shelter space on and off, so that evacuees can search for the nearest available shelter. Another app, available during Hurricane Florence, informed users of hosts who were willing to share their homes for those in need of temporary housing.
There are several apps that convert your phone into a walkie-talkie and since they can operate on an older, second-generation connection, users should be able to connect even when there is very poor network coverage. Some apps allow users to set up networks with friends, colleagues or neighbors to keep everyone organized, while others allow you to share files with other team members or send text messages.
A major benefit is that the walkie-talkie apps are quicker and actually more convenient than normal voice or data calls. If the user leaves the app up and running, it can be used without the need to keep the call connected.
The U.S. Geological Survey provides an app, the USGS Texas Water Dashboard. It covers Texas and provides critical water information and forecast data, bringing real-time USGS data into a single web mashup.
But while the USGS system provides users with information on floods using real-time stream, lake and reservoir, precipitation and groundwater data, it is only for their 750 USGS observation stations in Texas. The app does not show if roads are closed or if a road may close; it only displays difficult-to-read maps that show broad swaths of land, not the detailed level of information that citizens need.
Information That a New Hazardous Weather App Should Have
With so many apps available, some people may wonder if there is really a need for another app, but the answer is yes. There needs to be an app that offers real-time information on:
- Downed trees that block roads
- Power outages
- Areas at risk of flooding within the next three to 24 hours
- Roads that are plowed and safe to drive on
- The status of stores that carry common items everyone needs – such as groceries, gas or hardware
Ideally, this same app would also show predicted weather patterns as well as real-time events such as tornadoes and floods.
Such an app would allow local emergency service departments, utility companies, and citizens to report hazardous conditions in real time. It would allow users to see what roads are closed, what stores are open and how safe it is to travel.
The app needs to be easy to use and personalize, but also scalable so that users can view local communities and areas located across the country where their family members and friends live. It needs to be easy to use so anyone can upload information in real-time, but it would also have to limit people from reporting information in an area where they have no real knowledge of the conditions. The app must also be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
This type of app should work seamlessly with privately owned utility companies to display outages and estimated repair times. It must be able to display hazardous areas due to existing conditions as well as predicted ones. In addition, the app should automatically receive information from key agencies and the local status of an area.
Additionally, having portable transponders in vehicles engaged in emergency response missions, such as clearing roads, repairing utility outages or responding to emergencies would be helpful. Users could learn the general location of work crews, find out how long it would be until a road is clear and have some peace of mind in knowing that people are working on the crisis in their area.
The app must have easily configured graphic interface layers of specific types of data, such as the location of shelters and hospitals, snow roads and evacuation routes, and the location of open gas stations, grocery and convenience stores. The app needs to include a functionality that allows the users to define what layers that they want on or off at any given time. Furthermore, the app needs to have a data storage component so if the signal is lost after the initial download of all data, the user can still access data and filter it as needed.
However, this app would not only require coding, but cooperation among the owners of existing apps to provide a seamless flow of real-time information across different platforms through agnostic application programing interfaces. It would need to work on different devices such as smartphones, notebook computers and desktop computers to provide the most accurate, timely information to users. It must also be free to use.
Why We Need This App
Such an app could save lives. It would allow individuals to know their loved ones are out of harm’s way and provide them with information they need at their fingertips.
Instead of someone blindly venturing out after a storm, unsure of the conditions of the roads and if the local grocery store is open, this type of app could provide a user with information on what roads are open and the safest route to take to the nearest store. Through the walkie-talkie function, neighbors could alert others that they would be making a trip to the nearby grocery store and receive requests from others for urgent supplies, as well as find someone to accompany them.
With today’s bright minds creating some of the most complex games, developing this type of app should be relatively easy.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.