During a national disaster, contacting someone for help can be tricky. Luckily, in the digital age, there are emergency apps you can use without Wi-Fi, or cellular data, during a disaster. While some of these apps are also great hacks for free messaging during international travel, many were actually developed to help people in disaster zones call for help.
With Hurricane Irma being billed as one of the most devastating storms to ever make landfall in the U.S., Robert Gould, Florida Power & Light's vice president and chief communications officer, told Live Science that if power grids are totally destroyed Florida residents could be without power indefinitely. If you lose power, don't have a generator, and are trapped in your home, disaster apps could save your life.
Gould warned that since it's been more than 10 years since south Florida has experienced a major storm, felled trees will likely cause wide spread power outages. "There may be situations where we will physically have to rebuild, not restore, the power system," he told Live Science. That could take days or weeks."
If you need to call for help once winds subside, these emergency apps you can use without Wi-Fi, or cellular data, can provide a port in the storm — literally.
The Serval Mesh (Android Only)
With humans digitally dependent in 2017, being disconnected during a disaster can leave you feeling totally helpless. The Serval Mesh Project spent six years working with the New Zealand Red Cross on a solution in the form of a free software that allows smart-phones to communicate with each other, even in the face of catastrophic failure of cellular networks.
"It works by using your phone's Wi-Fi and bluetooth to communicate with other phones in your vicinity," The Serval Mesh explained on Google Play. "Or even by forming impromptu networks consisting only of mobile phones. Mesh communications is an appropriate technology for complementing cellular networks. Think of it like two-way radio or CB radio that has been propelled into the 21st century."
Source code is available on GitHub
FireChat (iOS and Android)
FireChat is a free messaging app that works even without internet access or cellular data for both Android and iPhone users. While this sounds like a dream come true, the one caveat is that you need to create a group to chat with people more than 210 feet away. FireChat uses MeshKit technology, which connects smartphones to one another and lets users of your app download, share, and forward data, similar to an old school game of telephone.
In an emergency, FireChat lets you reach people even when they are not online, have no signal, or cellular data; share and deliver important information to disconnected users and communities; and source information and images in critical locations.
Zello has been getting a lot of buzz after being featured in the Houston Chronicle in a story about the “Cajun Navy” of volunteers who have been using the app to coordinate their efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the app hit the top of the U.S. app store, TechCrunch reported. Six million people have downloaded the app since Sept. 4 ahead of Hurricane Irma.
However, Zello will only work with either a Wi-Fi or cellular data signal, and is primarily used for volunteer networks to communicate with each other after a disaster to coordinate rescue efforts. The app basically turns your phone into a walkie talkie so you can easily communicate with Zello other users. This is a good one to have on hand during any disaster, and can help speed up rescue efforts once the storm has passed.
Bridgefy (iOS and Android)
Bridgefy is the app that lets you send offline text messages when you don’t have access to the Internet, by simply turning on Bluetooth. Perfect for connecting with others during natural disasters, at large events, and at school!
Nextdoor is a social network app that can help keep you connected to what's going on in your neighborhood. More than 150,000 neighborhoods in the U.S. are on Nextdoor. If your community is on the network, you can use the app to get updates about what's happening in your specific area, which is not only helpful during a disaster, but in everyday life. However, you will need either Wi-Fi or cellular data to use Nextdoor.
Freenet is a peer-to-peer platform for censorship-resistant communication and publishing. Freenet Features: Browse websites, post on forums, and publish files within Freenet with strong privacy protections.
Freenet is free software which lets you anonymously share files, browse and publish "freesites" (web sites accessible only through Freenet) and chat on forums, without fear of censorship. Freenet is decentralised to make it less vulnerable to attack, and if used in "darknet" mode, where users only connect to their friends, is very difficult to detect.
Communications by Freenet nodes are encrypted and are routed through other nodes to make it extremely difficult to determine who is requesting the information and what its content is.
Users contribute to the network by giving bandwidth and a portion of their hard drive (called the "data store") for storing files. Files are automatically kept or deleted depending on how popular they are, with the least popular being discarded to make way for newer or more popular content. Files are encrypted, so generally the user cannot easily discover what is in his datastore, and hopefully can't be held accountable for it. Chat forums, websites, and search functionality, are all built on top of this distributed data store.
No Data Or Wi-Fi Needed To Call 911
You can use any cellphone to call or text 911 even without an active cellphone plan, USA TODAY reported. However, once winds reach 55 mph, emergency services can no longer respond to calls. Once the storm is over, you can contact 911 with your cellphone.
"After winds reach 55 mph, firetrucks will blow over and we have to take shelter," Timothy Heiser, deputy chief of Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, told the Sun Sentinel. "We'll be out as long as we can until it's too dangerous to respond."
Additionally, officials are urging residents to use 911 — not Twitter — to ask for help, and to report emergencies. "Once we get the all clear and can go out again, we'll respond to those stacked calls," Heiser explained. "If everybody loads up on social media, there is a danger of duplicate calls that could divert responders from emergencies."
Because you could be waiting for an extended period of time for help during a disaster after you call 911, it's a good idea to download some of the above disaster apps if you need immediate assistance. Additionally, if you don't have a waterproof phone case you might want to put your phone in a Ziploc bag, or wrap it in plastic wrap, to keep it safe from water damage.