Natural Disaster? There's an App for That!

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.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
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 percent 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 Elgan.com , or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List .

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