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Technology: Disrupting Disaster Response since 1881

By Dom Tolli, Preparedness, Health and Safety Services

Back in 1881, the American Red Cross used the telegraph for the first time to transmit disaster information during a forest fire in Michigan. I have hunch that someone at the time probably thought the telegraph was fad and that only “the young people” were into it. Little did anyone know it would launch the Red Cross -and the nation – onto a path of using technology to help during disasters.

Since 1881, the Red Cross has made a paradigm shift in how it distributes information to the public in times of crisis. Instead of distributing millions of brochures and flyers with emergency we now issue millions of mobile alerts and our apps have more than 100 million mobile views. Now, mobile technology is bringing the White House, the Red Cross and numerous other agencies together to look at new ways to alert people of danger.

Over the last two years, the Red Cross has launched eight preparedness apps: first aid, hurricane, wildfire, tornado, earthquake, flood, Team Red Cross and pet first aid. In September, the organization will add the blood app, encouraging and empowering people to bolster our nation’s blood supply. Nearly all of these apps allow the user to toggle between English and Spanish.

As smartphones become ubiquitous in society, so does their use in emergency situations. A 2013 report from the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution found that mobile development has surged in reaction to the increasing demand for instant and accurate information. Mobile technology provides an early warning system, aids in emergency coordination, and improves public communications.

Since 2012, use of Red Cross apps has skyrocketed, with more than 5 million downloads. Red Cross apps have sent more than 112 million notices to alert mobile phone users to earthquake, hurricane and tornado warnings. We’ve been able to incorporate this technology into our apps thanks to the U.S. government’s Open Data Policy, which unlocked tools such as weather alerts for private sector use. Users spend 12-40 minutes, on average, during disasters with their Red Cross apps; 3-7 minutes on average is more common for other disaster apps. Immediately before, during and after Superstorm Sandy, people spent 42 minutes searching for hurricane preparedness information; 18-23 minutes searching for and reviewing shelters; and 25-31 minutes managing alerts and storm tracking.

With over 5 million downloads of Red Cross apps alone, it’s safe to say technology and innovation continues to play a significant role improving disaster response and recovery efforts. That’s why we’re thrilled the White House has chosen to focus on such an important effort, bringing together the disaster preparedness and technology community via their Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative and today’s demo day.

What’s also clear is that technology has long been a disruptive force in the way that emergency officials, and the public alike, prepare for and respond to disasters. Mobile technology, in particular, gives disasters survivors a unique seat at the disaster response table. They can point out areas that need help, share damage reports and give feedback to response organizations instantly and often while they are still standing in the midst of rubble. Relief organizations like the American Red Cross have an opportunity and a responsibility to use this technology to provide the public with timely and relevant information, delivered where people want it in the palm of their hands.

Here’s a visual history of how the Red Cross has adopted technology:

disaster tech

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