5 apps to prepare you for any emergency

Turn your phone into a life saver before the next natural disaster or pandemic hits.

The novel coronavirus has given us all a crash course in emergency preparedness—or, more specifically, in how unprepared most of us are. Many of us are just now scrambling to learn how to stock a 14-day pantry, assemble a bug-out bag, or create a makeshift quarantine room.

But the most critical emergency response tool is already in your pocket. While your supplies will be stored away in your home or car, your phone is always with you. Loaded with the right apps, it can be the most important life-saving device in your emergency arsenal. There are a lot of emergency response apps out there, though, many with similar features, and it can be overwhelming trying to separate the truly disaster-ready from the duds. So, we did it for you, narrowing it down to a handful that cover the essential bases for getting you through just about any crisis.

fema app Michael Ansaldo/IDG

The official FEMA app includes everything you need to prepare for an emergency before it happens.

Planning: FEMA

The operative word in this exercise is “preparedness,” and the yeoman’s work is done before the first sign of trouble. The official Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app is designed to help you get a plan in place, so that you can respond, rather than react, to any emergency.

The app includes survival instructions for every imaginable disaster scenario—from active shooters and bioterrorism to natural disasters and nuclear explosions. On top of these detailed tips, the app provides an emergency kit checklist and entry fields for up to three emergency meeting places—primary, secondary, and out-of-town sites—where family and friends can join up when things go pear-shaped.

If you’re overwhelmed by the app’s disaster database, you can home in on exactly what you should prepare for by using the Know Your Risk feature. Enter your city or zip code and the app returns the most likely natural disasters to occur in that area. The results can be eye opening. Living in California, I expected earthquakes and wildfires to top the local list but had never thought much about the possibility of tsunamis. Once you know what to watch out for, you can set app alerts for those kinds of events.

All this should have you well-prepared to weather a dangerous event on your own, but should need more help the app can guide you to an emergency shelter in your area, put you in touch with a FEMA disaster center, or directly dial 911.

ice app Red Cross

ICE creates a lockscreen notification with your personal details and emergency contact.

Personal and contact info: ICE (In Case of Emergency)

In the event you are left unconscious or otherwise unable to communicate, emergency responders will look to your phone to find out who to call. ICE (In Case of Emergency) creates a virtual card that displays on your phone’s lock screen to make their job easier.

When you first launch the app, it prompts you enter your name, birthday, blood group, allergies, and medical treatments, and whether or not you’re an organ donor. Then it has you add a primary contact either manually or by searching your phone’s contacts app. When you’re done, just make sure you enable lock screen notifications on your device and ICE will display a message with your profile and contact data on two separate tabs. It’s still a good idea to carry your physical ID and medical card in case your phone gets damaged during the emergency event, but ICE provides an added layer of safety

life360 app Life360

The Life360 app lets you create private circles of family or friends for easy tracking and communication.

Staying connected: Life360 

Assuming you’re not injured, your first priority in an emergency is going to be finding and contacting your family or other household members. Whether you want to reunite at a predetermined meeting place or just let each other know you’re OK, the Life360 app will help you quickly track each other down.

Life360 lets you to create invitation-only “circles” of family members, roommates, work colleagues, or whomever matters most. Each member can view the real-time location of everyone else in their circle on a private map. If someone gets into trouble, they can trigger a help alert that sends their exact location to the rest of the circle. This easy visual tracking eliminates the need to coordinate during an emergency through cumbersome text threads or multiple phone calls. The app also includes a free chat feature and will even notify you if anyone’s phone battery is running low.

red cross app Michael Ansaldo/IDG

The American Red Cross First Aid app uses your GPS to compile a list of local hospitals and phone numbers.


Treating injuries: American Red Cross First Aid

During a natural disaster or a pandemic, emergency services may be too overwhelmed to respond as quickly as in normal conditions. That means you have to be ready to give medical care yourself to anyone in need until they can get there.

The Red Cross’ official First Aid app informs you how to administer first aid to anyone stricken ill or injured in a disaster, pandemic, or just the course of daily life. The app provides video and written instructions for responding to a range of conditions, and neatly organizes them into life-threatening (anaphylaxis, heart attack, stroke) and non-life threatening (broken bones, burns, flu) groups. The app even includes interactive quizzes to keep you on top of your first-aid skills.

On a separate tab, the app offers checklists and instructions for preparing and surviving a host of common emergencies including wildfires, tornadoes, power outages, and earthquakes. It can also use your GPS to compile a list of local hospitals with direct dial enabled for each.

Best of all, the app is continuously updated with information about current emergency events—at press time coronavirus safety tips were front and center on the app’s home screen—and all content is preloaded so you can access it even if you lose cell service.

red cross pet Michael Ansaldo/IDG

The American Red Cross Pet First Aid app shows you how to treat your ill or injured dog or cat in an emergency.

Protecting pets: Pet First Aid

An emergency response plan should account for your four-legged family members as well as your human ones. The Red Cross’ Pet First Aid app includes everything you need to keep Fido and Fluffy safe and healthy.

The app is designed much like its human first-aid counterpart. There are instructions for treating burns, wounds, smoke inhalation, fall injures, and other health emergencies, complete with quizzes to keep your skills sharp. There are tabs dedicated to storing your pets’ and their veterinarian’s personal details and a library of pet preparedness tips. The  pet-friendly-hotel locator will be particularly helpful if you have to temporarily relocate because of an emergency.

Be prepared

While all these apps are exceedingly easy to use, they’re only as good as the information you put in them. Each requires effort to get response-ready, so take the time to customize them to your needs before an emergency hits. Your survival may depend on it.

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Michael Ansaldo

PC World (US online)
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