New smartphone app uses GPS to connect disaster victims with responders

By Jessie Higgins
A search-and-rescue team checks a trailer for survivors after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October. A new smartphone app aims to connect storm victims with rescuers.  File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
A search-and-rescue team checks a trailer for survivors after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October. A new smartphone app aims to connect storm victims with rescuers.  File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

EVANSVILLE, Ind., May 3 (UPI) -- A new smartphone application uses GPS technology to help emergency responders locate and help victims of natural disasters.

The app, called PubSafe, allows disaster victims to post their location and need directly from their phone to a public map that relief workers can monitor in real time.


"In the short term, it is about connecting people in need with people who can help," said Eron Iler, who created the app. "It's just such an obvious platform."

Iler began building the app two years ago. The idea came to him while he was watching live coverage of relief crews heading in to aid victims of Hurricane Matthew, which in 2016 caused widespread devastation in the southeastern United States.

"I realized they had no way to coordinate what they were doing," Iler said. "I have a military background in logistics, I was a Marine. So I starting thinking of how to solve that problem. Really, the only way to do that is with a mobile app."


His recently completed app is not yet widely used, he said. The American Red Cross said it has not used it, and neither have government agencies. But that could change soon, especially as hurricane season begins.

"If I were an emergency manager in the Tampa area -- which I was at one point -- I would encourage people to download it," said Christopher Reynolds, a former division fire chief and emergency manager, who serves as dean of academic outreach and program development at the American Public University System. "It is one more method to communicate. Anything that can be seen as a tool to help people is an advantage to have."

Technology that sends a location to emergency responders is nothing new, said Reynolds, who was not involved in creating the app. Hikers and climbers for years have carried personal locator beacons. And fishing boats and ships have similar devices that will send an SOS along with coordinates to the Coast Guard if the ship sinks.

"This is the same thing," Reynolds said. "This is an app where people can feel more secure, so people can tell where I am if something happens to me."

For it to be effective, though, several things must line up -- the disaster area must maintain cell service, everyone in that area must have a smartphone, and everyone must be using the app.


Otherwise, rescue crews will have to fall back on existing emergency management techniques. That involves a lot of groundwork, Reynolds said.

Before a disaster ever happens, emergency managers assess areas to determine places that are most at risk -- for example, which areas of a city are most likely to flood during a hurricane. These locations are the first to be evacuated, and search-and-rescue crews focus their attention there immediately following the storm.

"Risk assessment teams find where people are trapped," Reynolds said. They will use aerial surveillance, boats or people on the ground.

What an app like PubSafe would do is give those rescue workers a better idea of who is where. It also would enable people who are not part of the search-and-rescue team to find neighbors who may need help, Iler said.

"The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that after Hurricane Michael, they had 2,500 requests for help that they couldn't get to," Iler said. "When you have that many people who can't get help, you need a platform for the people who show up and want to volunteer. You don't forgo people who are standing there ready to go when people are dying."


The application extends beyond search and rescue. It could help volunteers deliver supplies where they are needed.

After natural disasters, it is common for good Samaritans to send massive amounts of supplies to the disaster areas. However, those supplies often never arrive where they are needed.

"It could help organizations and churches know exactly what people need and specifically where they are," Iler said. "They can take supplies straight to them."

In the long term, Iler hopes governments and larger relief organizations all use the app to streamline response efforts.

"We don't need 50,000 different platforms," Iler said. "We need one nationally that everyone can share."

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