Natural disaster? There's an app for that!

Thanks to the smartphone revolution, disaster preparedness is as easy as downloading a few apps

As Friday's earthquake in Japan demonstrates, natural disasters happen. And when they do, the first two things to go down are electricity and telephone services.

The massive earthquake in Japan was a perfect example. Power was cut for millions of people, which meant that TVs and radios were useless for getting emergency instructions. And phone lines were overwhelmed by people trying to call each other. To keep the lines available for emergency crews, the Japanese carriers placed restrictions on 80 per cent of the voice traffic. When most people tried to call, the lines were dead.

That's why smartphones are so useful during an emergency. They have their own batteries, and they have Internet connections that function even when phone service is interrupted. Best of all, smartphones have smart apps that can give you lifesaving capabilities.

Here are the very best smartphone apps for emergency events:

BuddyGuard . The free BuddyGuard app from MPOWER Labs is now available for iOS devices and will soon ship for Android and BlackBerry as well, according to the company. Think of BuddyGuard as a smart "panic button."

By clicking on the big button on the app, your camera will start taking pictures every ten seconds. All sounds are recorded constantly, and your GPS location is captured every three seconds. All this data is uploaded every 30 seconds to the cloud, and a link to that data is broadcast to your list of emergency contacts.

Because the data is stored in the cloud, it's still available to others even if your phone is damaged or lost.

BuddyGuard also lets you say, "Never mind, I'm OK." The function tells your contacts you're safe, and erases the data from the cloud.

Another feature lets your contacts be notified if you don't check back in. Let's say you're going to try and help someone trapped in rubble after an earthquake. You can set BuddyGuard in a timer mode. If you fail to check back in within the time you set, an alert goes out to your contacts letting them know you're in trouble, and where.

BuddyGuard also performs another neat trick. It can detect an impact, fall or a 5G stop using your phone's accelerometer. If you don't tell it "I'm OK" within 5 seconds, it sends out an emergency alert with your location.

The BuddyGuard business plan is a freemium model. The app is free. But if you upgrade to a $9.99-per-month service, the app will send your alerts to the company's International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which will decide whether to alert local emergency teams or even your national embassy if you happen to be abroad. The upgrade also insures you via Lloyds of London for up to $100,000 for search, rescue, helicopter, ambulance and even translators associated with an emergency.

Emergency Radio. The most important tool in any emergency is real-time information. You need to know what's coming, what to do and where to go. The 99-cent emergency radio app gives you access not only to police, fire and other scanners, but also maps where events are taking place.

Disaster Caster. When disaster strikes, you don't have much time to get coordinated. That's why you should plan ahead. The Disaster Caster app, also 99 cents, helps you do that. Then, during an emergency, it broadcasts your plan to family and friends, telling them what to do, and, most importantly, where to meet up.

You can store multiple disaster plans. Here in California, for example, it would make sense to have different plans for fire, earthquake, flooding and tsunami events. For example, in a fire, you might want to get out of the mountains and head for the coast. In a tsunami, you definitely want to leave the coast and get into the mountains.

Disaster Caster also notifies your emergency contacts about your location -- even if you don't know yourself exactly where you are.

Pocket First Aid & CPR . If someone needs first-aid help, a $3.99 app from the American Heart Association can guide you through the giving of CPR and other basic first aid. It can also call emergency services for you.

Close Call. If you have a medical condition, a free iPhone app called Close Call can help you in an emergency. It simply adds your emergency contact's phone number, plus any allergies or special medical conditions, to the home screen of your phone.

How else can a cell phone save your life?

Google often provides incredibly useful services during big emergencies. Its page on the Japan earthquake, for example, provides all kinds of information, including a "people finder" where you can find their family and friends.

One of the first things you can do during an emergency is use your cell phone to search the Web for any resource page Google puts up. It usually has them up and running in an hour or two after disaster strikes.

Twitter is also very useful in an emergency. The U.S. government's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has a useful Twitter feed full of tips and information. Best of all, the agency will re-tweet important alerts by local agencies. All the major information you need will be broadcast on the FEMA feed.

FEMA also has a blog. One post gives some great basic tips on how to prepare your cell phone for an emergency.

Disasters happen. And you can be prepared just by downloading a few free or inexpensive cell phone apps.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Read more about mobile apps and services in Computerworld's Mobile Apps and Services Topic Center.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags smartphonesdisaster recoverysoftwareapplicationsBusiness ContinuityPhonesconsumer electronicsMobile Apps and ServicesJapan earthquake

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers


This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang


It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries


As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr


The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?