Mobility

Zombie apocalypse? Prep your smartphone for emergency situations

Learn how to equip your phone to help steer you through disaster scenarios, whether a zombie apocalypse or a Donald Trump rally.

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Image: iStock/mppriv

My older son and I watch a lot of films and terrorism has been a long-running theme both in fiction and real life, sadly enough. Therefore, I wasn't particularly surprised by the vivid dream I had the other night.

In the dream I was visiting lower Manhattan with my wife and three kids. A nuclear bomb scare forced the immediate and frenzied evacuation of the area. My younger son and I were split off from the others; my wife - I hoped - was with our older two children blocks away, but a dark comedy of errors ensured as I tried desperately to reach her:

  • I couldn't call her on my phone since I kept receiving an "All circuits are busy" error - no surprise given the population of lower Manhattan (see, the mind of a creative writer at work).
  • I tried texting her but my phone screen refused to respond (my Otter box case can be notorious for disrupting screen sensitivity) and I also noticed the battery was dangerously low.
  • I tried sending her a Facebook message but Facebook interrupted with a "try our new emoticons with Messenger" prompt which I couldn't bypass.
  • I tried texting her again then somehow realized I had my father's iPhone and her contact information wasn't in it. Further attempts somehow turned the iPhone into my wife's iPad which I glumly realized had no mobile data plan and therefore no texting capability.

Needless to say, even in the dream I felt frustrated enough to consider pitching these unhelpful devices into the Hudson River, though I was sensible enough to keep in mind that it would render me 100% incommunicado.

As the dream progressed, my son and I got to our vehicle then I was faced with the stark realization that I had no idea if I should pick up my other family members - or where to do so - or whether they were already safely evacuated out of Manhattan. In other words, I had to choose between the certain step of saving one family member by escaping to New Jersey or the uncertainty of trying to save - or end up losing - all of them?

In short, I was up the proverbial creek without the data I needed to make a decision. Fortunately, I woke up instead.

Yes, movies are made from lesser stuff than this. Melodrama aside, luckily it was only a dream, of course, but I didn't need Freud to interpret what it meant: fear of losing touch with my loved ones in a disaster coupled with some common technological roadblocks we routinely face.

Fortunately there are real-life ways to mitigate these unpleasant situations to help be as prepared as possible, whether possible terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Let's look at some techniques.

Make sure your contact information is up to date and backed up

This one may be a no-brainer but gaps in the accuracy - or existence - of your contacts can be a major impediment to communications during a disaster. Google and Apple both provide automatic backup of contacts through Gmail and iCloud, respectively, so utilizing their services and updating information when it changes is a good way to ensure your device has the right contacts and they will be available when needed. If you lose your device you can log into your account and access the data elsewhere as well. For critical family members I recommend memorizing their mobile numbers outright, of course - and have them do the same for yours.

Make sure your device is ready for the long haul

Another obvious recommendation, but one that can save you a lot of grief: keep your device in tip-top shape. Remove all unnecessary apps which might drain the battery. Keep a couple of spare batteries (if your device allows you the option of swapping these out). Make sure the hardware performs well; replace damaged screens, buttons and other elements which may be malfunctioning. And by all means keep it as fully charged as possible. I use car chargers, desk chargers and of course a bedside charger so at least two-thirds of the time during a normal day (and sometimes 100% depending on my schedule) I have access to power.

My older two children have mobile devices so they can contact us if they need assistance (and we can find out how their homework is going). I bought a 5-port USB charging station for them to use to keep their phones powered up, which also helps cut down on the "I never got your text message asking me about my homework since my phone was dead" excuses.

Use a mobile app

I found an interesting (albeit a bit dated) article titled " An 'App' for everything; But can Apps for Disaster save lives? " Written by Samantha Ridler-Ueno, it focuses on potential usage of mobile apps for disaster management and recovery. She addresses research papers which examined critical disaster app functions such as alert notifications, location sensing/hazard map, message boards, follow-up (donations/news), education, supplies/logistics, security, information/communication, emergency response, infrastructural damage and governance. In short, ways to alert, connect, discuss, assist and rebuild.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a set of disaster-related apps for Android and iTunes and so does the Red Cross. Both are intended for the purposes outlined above and will work as information repositories even if there is no mobile data service available.

I tried both apps out, selecting the FEMA version first:

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Image: Scott Matteson

As you can see, the app offers various categories of information and communication. I tapped "Prepare" and it expanded to provide these resources:

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Image: Scott Matteson

Tapping "Be informed" yielded these details:

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Image: Scott Matteson

These selections provide information on how to handle the various types of disasters shown here. I accessed "Terrorism" to see what it might say about my New York City dream sequence:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I tapped "Explosions" and found the following details:

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Image: Scott Matteson

Scrolling down provided some tips on what to do before, during or after an explosion:

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Image: Scott Matteson

Tapping "Before an Explosion" then brought up these recommendations:

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Image: Scott Matteson

The FEMA app also provides weather alerts, disaster resources, disaster reporting capabilities, a blog, information on volunteering and donating, and these details for receiving monthly preparedness tips from FEMA:

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Image: Scott Matteson

The Red Cross app provides similar information (as does their site, which for instance has a page on Terrorism Preparedness ) and also allows you the functionality to monitor people and places in the event a disaster occurs in that location.

I opened the app and was prompted to "Add a place:"

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Image: Scott Matteson

Tapping "Add Place" brought up a map where I could enter a zipcode or city to monitor:

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Image: Scott Matteson
I entered my local zip code, and was then prompted to link a person to this, so I chose to enter my wife's name:

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Image: Scott Matteson

Tapping "Finish" produced the following screen:

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Image: Scott Matteson

Now my home location in Massachusetts is being monitored by the app. I could confirm this by tapping "Places":

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Image: Scott Matteson

Here is the full menu of options provided by the Red Cross app:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I explored the "Prepare" menu and found a list of informational categories I could research:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I scrolled down the list and saw "Power Outage."

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Image: Scott Matteson

Since we frequently have power outages in my part of Massachusetts, I selected this option:

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Image: Scott Matteson

As with the FEMA app, information on what to do before, during and after a disaster are available. For instance, here are the Red Cross tips on how to prepare for a power outage:

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Image: Scott Matteson

There are also some other useful disaster-related apps listed on this page , such as a "Red Panic Button" which can send a message to others with your location.

Use the internet to locate your loved ones devices

You can locate people via technology, assuming you have their relevant account information or have already installed certain apps on their phones (and they have their devices in their possession, of course). Apple offers the "Find My iPhone" iTunes app (which must be installed on both the source and target devices) or you can sign into iCloud with your target's Apple ID to track the location of their device.

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Image: Apple

In the case of the aforementioned dream, had I looked up my wife's iPhone and seen it was in Queens - or moving eastward - I would have known she got over the East River safely and presumably with our other two kids, whom she would not leave behind.

Google provides something similar with their Android Device Manager link where you can log in with the target user's Google ID then see where their device is currently located (when I tried it this was accurate within 36 meters). You can also install the Find My Android Phone! App from the Google Play store and link devices together for searchability; as with the Apple product the app must be installed on both the source and target devices.

Take advantage of social media

Following or liking local news or official pages (such as the NYPD) on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets can be a good way to receive instructions, updates and advice (so long as mobile data connectivity exists, of course).

Non-technological solutions for disaster handling

There are other recommendations besides using technology to help get you and your loved ones through an emergency situation, of course:

  • Stay calm - the first step in any stressful scenario.
  • Arrange a meeting spot to rendezvous.
  • Talk to the officials and obey all requests/commands.
  • Carry cash/documents/identification with you.
  • Have a disaster preparedness kit containing items you may need.
  • Have a disaster preparedness plan, especially for the type of scenario most likely to occur where you are (earthquakes in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma, blizzards in the mountains or Northeast, hurricanes in Florida, etc.)
  • Get creative - in an evacuation scenario like the one I described in my dream, driving out of Manhattan might not have been the best option due to snarled roadways. Walking out over one of the bridges then arranging transportation might have been a better option (depending on time constraints of course).
  • Disasters can be a grim subject but one worthy of examination, especially in this day and age. I sincerely hope you will never need to rely on these tips, but if the need arises they will be useful to you. And to my brain, the next time you concoct a disaster dream in New York, please make me John McClane from "Die Hard." That way I'll be able to drive on the sidewalks.

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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