If disaster strikes, or you encounter any kind of emergency situation that threatens your safety, you need the most current and complete information available. It's also critical that you have a way to communicate your situation to authorities, or to family and friends. People with vision loss may face particular challenges in an emergency, when resources and assistance may be scarce. Armed with your smartphone, and the right apps, you can take the learning role in guarding your own safety, alert others to your situation, and gather knowledge you need to take action. In this article, we'll take a look at tools you can use to enhance your personal safety, or prepare for and deal with emergency situations all while remaining as independent as possible.
The first principle of protecting yourself from harm, especially in an unfamiliar situation or location, is being aware of your surroundings. Even if you experience vision loss, it's possible to be observant and vigilant. Of course, you should always know how to contact emergency services, and be ready to do so, whether at home, or away. Some smartphones, and wearable devices like the Apple Watch, have quick access buttons that dial 911, or offer other safety alert options. It's a good idea to understand and set up these features ahead of time, and know how to activate them in an emergency. You can also download a number of apps and services that can help you manage an emergency situation, or prepare for one, before it occurs. Many personal safety apps use your phone's communication capabilities to make calls, send text messages, and send and receive alerts. You can even use video and photos to help others find you, if necessary. Some apps allow you to give select people permission to track your location. Because these tools depend on others being able to find you, there are privacy implications associated with them. You can protect both your safety and your privacy by thinking carefully about what information you share, and who you share it with.
One way to protect yourself as you travel in unfamiliar or potentially dangerous surroundings, is to allow friends and family to know where you are, and/or receive alerts if you don't arrive at a time or place you've specified. If necessary, your trusted friend can attempt to make contact with you, or emergency services, letting authorities know when and where you were last heard from. To use these services, you will probably need to set up an account, and include contact info for your friend or family member. Read the terms of service, and privacy policies for the app you choose, to be sure that you understand who has access to information about you, and how it can be used. Here are some personal safety apps, and what they do:
- bSafe (Android or iOS): bSafe is a subscription service, though the app is free. You and your chosen contact must create accounts, and install the app on your phone. From there, bSafe can automatically send alerts to a contact that you have safely reached your destination. GPS tracking is supported. You can set the app to "call" you, enabling you to escape a date that's not going well, or other awkward situation. Initiate an audible alarm, or broadcast video from your phone, to aid friends or authorities in finding or assisting you.
- Kitestring (Android or iOS): Kitestring is actually a Web service, not an app. Tell Kitestring that you're, say, walking home at night. Tell it how long to wait, then check in when you arrive safely. If you don't, Kitestring notifies your chosen emergency contacts. You can use Kitestring free to track up to three trips per month. Unlimited trips cost $3 per month.
- Bugle (iOS): If you like to run or walk without having to carry the bulk of a cell phone, leave the phone at home, and let Bugle notify a contact if you don't, check in by a specified time.
- HikerAlert (Web): Similar in function to Bugle, HikersAlert is a $4.95 Web service you can use to alert contacts if you don't return to a specified location. Leave your cell phone at home or at a camp sight, and check in when you return.
- Guardian Circle (Android or iOS): Guardian Circle focuses more on building a network of people that can help in an emergency than on specific tools. As a member of a circle, you can give or receive help, when contacted by another member. You can include an unlimited number of contacts in your circle. The company suggests using the service for situations ranging from being locked out of your house, or needing to get out of an uncomfortable date, to life-threatening situations. When you request help, using one of four alert levels, members of your circle can locate you on a map, and you can find them, too.
- SafeTrek (Android or iOS): For real-time safety, hold your finger on the SafeTrek button when walking in an unfamiliar, or dangerous area. If you let go, and don't respond to a query from the app, SafeTrek alerts authorities to your location.
- Circle of 6 (Android or iOS): Create a "circle" of up to six people from your contacts, to be notified in case of emergency. You can send a request for help, request that a contact call you, to get you out of a difficult situation. The app also includes contact info for national help hotlines.
Preparing for and Dealing with Disasters
When a natural, or human-caused disaster strikes, it's crucial to know what's happening around you, and whether authorities recommend or require that you leave your current location. And even if you must move, you may require assistance to do so quickly and safely. Because disasters and emergencies can affect many people at once, it is critical that you have as much information as possible, so that you can stay safe until help is available.
The first step is to understand what's going on. Municipalities and news organizations often offer apps that deliver emergency information, and your phone carrier, in cooperation with authorities, may send you weather alerts. It's tempting to disable these, but one might just save your life in the event of storm, earthquake, or other weather event that you're not aware of. You can also follow police, government, or news outlets on social media. In many cities, Twitter can be a source of useful, actionable information, in the event of a storm or other emergency. Begin by learning about emergency resources in your community. Does your city or county offer an emergency app? It might even include information about where to go in case of a crisis, or the ability to enable alerts on your phone. Even non-emergency apps can help you, for example, if you need to contact utilities about a power or water outage.
Preparedness apps can also give you quick access to information and contacts you'll need in case of emergency. You may think you know what to do if a tornado strikes, or a child consumes a toxic substance, for example, but an app or service can help, when the stress of a crisis takes over.
Let's take a look at some apps you can use to prepare for, or respond to emergencies:
- FEMA mobile apps: (Android or iOS): The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) can provide National Weather Service alerts for your area, information about shelters and available FEMA contacts, and tips for disaster preparedness. Content is available in English or Spanish.
- American Red Cross Mobile Apps (Android or iOS): The Red Cross offers a lot of apps, each tailored for a specific emergency or disaster situation. They include: Emergency, Tornado, Flood, Hurricane, Wildfire, and Earthquake, along with apps that provide information on blood donation, and pet first aid.
- First Aid (Android or iOS): Among the most useful of the American Red Cross suite of apps, First Aid organizes health and safety information into useful categories, like Asthma Attack, Broken Bones, Burns, and more. Each topic features step-by-step first aid guidance. Using your current location, the app can even locate the nearest hospital. Content is available in English or Spanish.
- Disaster Alert (Web, Android or iOS): This Website, whose information is also available in app form, provides a large collection of information about hazards around the globe. The site specializes in earthquake and weather-related information.
- Know Your Plan (Android or iOS): Created by the Insurance Information Institute, Know Your Plan aims to help you build a checklist of things to do and have, in case of an emergency, such as flood, fire, or earthquake. Add the app's suggested items to your own emergency checklist, along with your own. The app is accessible. but screen reader users may encounter a few unlabeled buttons.
- Disasterassistance.gov (Web): Designed as a clearinghouse for disaster information aimed at the needs of citizens with disabilities, this Web site allows you to enter your address, to determine whether your area is currently a declared individual assistance disaster area. From the site, you can also locate local and federal emergency services resources.
- Emergency Readiness for People with Disabilities (Web): This Website, from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers tips and links for disaster preparedness.
Installing an app on your phone does not guarantee that you'll be safe in a threatening situation, or an emergency, but being prepared is the first step to safety, whether you need to protect yourself in a dangerous neighborhood, or in case of natural disaster. Let information and support from family, friends and authorities be your first line of defense, and increase your chances of surviving and thriving when danger strikes.
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