An EOC in your pocket: turning your phone into a state of the art Emergency Operations Center

11/08/2018 8:35 AM | AllHazards (Administrator)

Cellphones historically have a bad rap in Emergency Management. The dogma is that cellphones can't be relied on in a disaster, therefore they are not a primary part of the Emergency Manager's toolbox. However, this misses the point that the vast majority of the time cellphones do work, and cellphone infrastructure resilience is increasing with the proliferation of cellphone towers, rapid response by cellphone providers to bring in temporary towers in a disaster, and most recently the emergence of FirstNet, the robust cellphone network for emergency personnel. The chances are that most of the time you will be able to get some internet service either through the cellular network or Wifi. As resilience has grown, so has usefulness. There are now a plethora of apps and services that mean that if you do have internet service, you can to an amazing degree replicate the functions of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on the smartphone in your pocket. In this article we will describe a set of apps that will enable you to achieve the primary functions of the EOC: meeting & sharing space, phone and radio communications, situational awareness, and access to plans, documents and maps.

Meeting & sharing space

Most physical EOC's have a meeting area with a conference table for discussion and decision making. Events can be discussed together or in small groups; situational awareness can be shared; decisions can be made. There are two fantastic tools now available that enable you to replicate this physical space electronically: Zoom for virtual meetings, and Slack for text-based discussion. Virtual meetings have come a long way since the early days of connection problems, complex interfaces and poor quality: Zoom is the first online video/voice meeting system I have come across that really works well. It's super easy to join an existing meeting "room" through the app without an account, or you can create an account in a few minutes to generate a one-off or persistent meeting room. Importantly, Zoom automatically adjusts quality to the bandwidth available, so you can use it quite well even on a poor quality connection. You can use Zoom for free for meetings up to 45 minutes, or get unlimited use through a monthly subscription. If you have access to a desktop machine or laptop, you can also run Zoom on it for a larger display, and to free up your phone for other purposes. Slack is another easy to use tool that is designed for team collaboration through quick post-and-respond messages. You can create a "team" for free, and add "channels" for discussion on specific topics. Slack is now widely used in industry, and is great for quickly sharing information, links, photos and other situational awareness within a team. Communication can also be one-on-one. 

Phone and radio communications

Phones are a central component of a traditional EOC. Of course your phone is, itself, a phone, but you can do more than that: in fact, your phone can become multiple phones in one. VoIP (Voice-over-IP) apps such as Microsoft Skype for Business enable you to make and receive calls from your office phone on your smartphone. Google Voice, GrooveIP, and Sudo (iPhone only) among others allow you to create new VoIP phone numbers that operate over the data or WiFi connection of your phone. This is especially useful in the instance that cellphone towers may be down, but you are able to access WiFi. Need secure phone communications? Signal and Wire offer secure, end-to-end encrypted voice, video and text communication. While your phone doesn't fully replace a two-way radio it can get pretty close. Zello is a "radio over IP" app that is free to use, allowing a group to communicate just like a two way radio, but on your phone. You can set up channels for different purposes and control who gets to access them. With a paid ZelloWork plan, you can manage a whole system including dynamically adding and removing channels and users, GPS tracking of locations of users if desired, and even use a hardware bridge to connect a Zello channel to interoperate with a real two-way radio system. Zello can work with very little bandwidth, for instance on a 2G connection. Scanner Radio Pro (Scanner Radio Deluxe on iPhone) is one of several apps that use the Broadcastify live radio scanner feeds to allow monitoring of fire, EMS and public safety radio systems throughout the country. The "listeners alert" will let you know if the number of listeners to a particular feed suddenly increases, usually an indication of a major event. Often this notification comes well before other "news alerts" about an event.

Situational awareness

There are many apps that can allow you to achieve good situational awareness before, during and after emergency incidents. Twitter is very useful to get real time social media posts about an event (search for a term related to the event and select Latest to get latest tweets), and Twitter Lists can be used to filter posts to just those by certain users, e.g. for local breaking news, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on (you can see some example lists on the AllHazards Twitter account). There are several good weather apps available that provide access to forecasts, current conditions, and weather alerts including Weather Underground, The Weather Channel, DarkSky and Accuweather. These apps do not generally give access to more technical forecasts, such as those from the Storm Prediction Center, but you can access these through the web browser in mobile friendly format on the AllHazards Dashboard. Of the many weather radar apps, Radarscope stands out due to its quality of radar imagery, reliability and advanced features. There are many other apps available for specific hazards, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. PulsePoint is a fantastic app thats primary purpose is to alert citizens if someone needs CPR close to them, but secondarily gives access to a filtered version of the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, so is great for seeing what 911 calls are coming in locally. PulsePoint requires an agreement with local agencies, so if your local dispatch is not yet on it, now is a good time to look into it. The Waze navigation app is also a good way to find out about traffic conditions in an area. Apps from FEMA and the Red Cross round out your situational awareness toolbox.

Access to plans, documents and maps

It is now easy to access documents on your phone that are stored locally and in the cloud, including those in common formats such as Microsoft Office and PDF.  DropBox and Box are two of the most popular cloud services, and their apps have integrated viewers for these formats. If end-to-end encryption is required, look at some of the smaller providers like Sync and NextCloud. While the built in phone mapping apps cover most needs, they do rely on a live internet connection. Several offline mapping applications are now available: one of the best and easiest to use is Maps.Me. Also take a look at Maplets, which allows you to download copies of paper maps, some of which are geotagged so you can locate your position on them.

Other considerations

So what are you waiting for? Well go ahead and make your smartphone into a pocket EOC, but do be aware there are some limitations. None of what you can do on your phone should mean you do away with fail-safe, redundant established systems that have proven to be resilient to disasters. Running apps on your phone that use the speakerphone extensively, including the two way radio and scanner apps, and the videoconferencing apps, can kill your battery quickly, so make sure you have some ways on hand to recharge your battery when needed.

Cover photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash. Images for Zoom, Zello and taken from their respective websites.

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