If you live in Lee County and need to evacuate because of a hurricane, there’s an app for that.
Lee County Emergency Management is offering LeeEvac, a mobile device app that’s free for both Apple- and Android-based phones and devices, such as tablets and iPads.
Lee County Emergency Management Coordinator Celeste Fournier said the app allows a person to use the Global Positioning System (GPS) or to search by address to find out which evacuation zone they are in. In addition, the user can be notified when an evacuation has been ordered.
Lee Emergency Management has had the app since August 2011, Fournier said.
“There are more (apps) under way, but I don’t know when they will be out on the market,” Fournier said.
The LeeEvac app represents another way Southwest Florida emergency management departments are connecting with people using current technology and social media.
Dan Summers, Collier’s emergency management director, said the department does a modest amount of posting and updating through social media. But the department primarily uses social media as a general information tool to direct the public to the Collier County government website where there is more detailed information posted, Summers said.
The agency has had a Facebook and Twitter account for almost a year.
“The only caution or reservation that we have in social media is making sure that there is adequate detail in the message,” Summers said.
As the department continues to become more familiar with social media, staff will use it to supplement conventional forms of broadcasting information about hurricanes and evacuation plans, including radio and television.
“It’s important for the public to have multiple resources for receiving information,” Summers said.
“Our goal is to provide information that people need in a format that they are comfortable with in a time frame that is usable and we find that social media is one of the ways that we can do that,” emergency planning chief Gerald Campbell said.
Lee’s emergency management agency has been using Twitter for three years and has nearly 1,000 followers. But there is a challenge in dedicating staff members to post messages through social media.
“We recognize that social media (provides) valuable resources, but it also is draining our own resources,” Campbell said of staff spending time doing that during an emergency.
Although many residents have smartphones and computers, Lee County Emergency Management doesn’t abandon traditional techniques to communicate with people.
Campbell said the challenge is balancing the new way to communicate with people and the traditional techniques.
Lee County Emergency Management continues to keep the public informed using television, radio, newspapers and printed brochures. But Emergency Management is doing its best to keep up with the rapidly changing form of technology, Campbell said.
“Hurricanes are a fact of life in Southwest Florida and it’s important to have a plan on how to make yourself safer in the event a hurricane comes to our community,” Campbell said. “And one of the keys to having a good plan is having good information and that’s where social media plays a huge role for us.”
The Florida Division of Emergency Management sends updates daily through popular social media at least once a day. The division, based in Tallahassee, has been using both Facebook and Twitter accounts for at least two years.
William Booher, external affairs director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, views social media as another tool for emergency preparedness.
The state agency posts and sends messages at least once a day, whether there is a storm or not.
Social media is an active and fast-moving platform to distribute information more quickly, Booher said, adding that social media is an effective way to get the message out regarding preparedness.
“It’s a very useful tool and we certainly continue to use it for non-disaster and disaster times,” Booher said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate said emergency managers will continue to use traditional media, particularly television and radio, to alert people to danger, but he is plugging a new system now available to most smartphone users that will push geographic-specific alerts to customers if there’s a crisis.
The Federal Communications Commission announced earlier this year that the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) system, also known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) now allows emergency officials to send targeted alerts to specific areas through cell towers to users near that tower.” We’re now able to broadcast to cell phones, that’s been a huge evolution,” Fugate said during a White House briefing Wednesday. “We have implemented the technology nationwide to begin pushing information to cell phones.”
Participation by cell phone users is automatic if their carrier participates, meaning they don’t have to do anything to sign up.
FEMA also has a separate service whereby cell phone users can text their ZIP code to FEMA and get a message back with nearby shelter locations.
Just in time for hurricane season, the E.W. Scripps Co. also has a new app designed to improve public safety by providing potentially life-saving information before, during and after severe weather events. The Storm Shield App supplies localized and specific information regarding imminent weather threats to a mobile user’s area.
The Storm Shield app is available in the iTunes store for $4.99. An Android version is in production.
— David Royse of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report
Reprinted from the June 1, 2012, Daily News