Can Zello Save You In a Hurricane?

Category: Mobile

A smartphone app that nobody had heard of a week ago is being touted as the best way to communicate in the event that a hurricane wipes out cell phone and Internet services. Zello supposedly works like a walkie-talkie and lets you communicate with neighbors and emergency services. Turns out that's a mixture of fact and fiction. Read on for the truth about Zello...

Zello: The Essential Survival App?

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area, the following message spread like wildfire across social media:

VERY IMPORTANT COMMUNICATION NEWS IF WE LOSE CELL TOWERS. If we lose cell service during the storm. Here is what to do for communication: Download the app Zello now. You can use it in the event of an emergency like a walkie talkie. Many people used it in Houston and were rescued because of it. Spread the word.

One person said it was integral to the Cajun Navy in Houston for them to communicate rescuing people. I just downloaded it, it took about 30 seconds and it is really cool, works just like a real walkie-talkie. After it is downloaded it will ask you if you want to test the app, click yes. At that point the walkie-talkie part will show up and you will have a red circle in the middle of the screen, press down on that Circle and hold it until it turns green and start talking, when you are done talking stop pressing, kind of like a real walkie talkies with buttons on the side. DOWNLOAD ZELLO NOW, please.

Zello - Hurricane Survival app?

First, a local Austin Fox affiliate picked up the story. The next day, national news media including USA Today, CNN, and The Washington Post were echoing Zello’s praises, along with words from the company’s CEO, Bill Moore. By September 6, Zello was the # 1 most downloaded app on iTunes. That’s pretty good for an app hardly anyone had heard of before Harvey came along.

When I first saw that social media message, something felt spammy about it. This wouldn’t be the first time someone took advantage of a tragedy to promote a product. The message sounded ad-agency slick, and it was short on details. (Who, exactly, said Zello was “integral” to the Cajun Navy’s rescue work?)

I tracked down the reference to the Cajun Navy - the original, Louisiana-based band of volunteer rescuers - and found that they did, indeed, recommend Zello on August 27 and 28, two days after Harvey landed on Texas.

How (When and Where) Does Zello Work?

Are you in an area where a hurricane strike is likely? Get prepared NOW. The Red Cross Hurricane Safety Checklist has some excellent tips on what to do before the storm, supplies you may need, and what to do after a hurricane.

But I still wondered how Zello could work when cell towers and Internet service were literally underwater. So did Snopes, which concluded that Zello could not operate without “wireless Internet or cellular data.” Snopes had good reason to draw that conclusion: a Tweet from Zello on September 5 that reads,

“There is a massive misinformation among users in Puerto Rico that Zello will work without internet. It will *not*, please RT.”

It turns out my assumptions about cellular service outages were unduly pessimistic. According to the FCC, on August 27 only 320 cell sites were down out of a total of 7,804 in the 55 Texas and Louisiana counties that were part of the disaster area. On August 28, the number of down sites increased to 364. That’s still only 4.7% of all disaster-area cell sites.

However, cell site outages were not spread evenly over the 55 counties. The cell site outage percentages were 94.7 percent in Aransas County; 85.2 percent in Calhoun; 84.6 percent in Refugio; and 51.7 percent in San Patricio. Zello would not be of much use in those areas.

Cable and wireline (DSL) services did not fare well. At least 148,565 customers were without service on Aug. 27, and that figure grew to at least 189,487 the next day.

Comcast said that most of its outages were due to power failures, not severed cables or drowned equipment. The company suspended operations in the Houston area, including repairs, until "local emergency management agencies deem it safe to be on the roads," according to MultiChannel News.

The bad news is that Zello won’t help when there’s not Internet access. The good news is that cellular data service is a lot more resilient than I, at least, previously supposed. It seems rural cell sites are not hardened or maintained as well as urban towers, and that is a problem that must be addressed.

Zello can still be useful in a disaster even if cellular service is available. Who are you going to call for help, especially if 911 is overwhelmed or knocked out entirely? Zello allows groups of volunteers and emergency professionals to create channels with explicit names such as "SouthHoustonRescue," "RichardsonEMS," etc., making it dead simple to contact the appropriate group or agency.

After downloading the Zello app for your iPhone or Android phone, create a username and pick a channel from a list. You can also create a channel and invite people to join. Folks in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas may find it useful, especially with Hurricane Irma (and perhaps Jose) on the way to those areas.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can Zello Save You In a Hurricane?"

Posted by:

CJ Russell
08 Sep 2017

I heard the "Cajun Navy" refer to Zello, but didn't look into it at the time. We were some of the lucky folks in Houston who didn't lose power or internet and didn't flood in the house (street, yes). Thank you for the information. It may be useful for me to download Zello before the next hurricane.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2017

Very interesting article. As I am on the West Coast, hurricanes are not an issue here. But, we live in an active earthquake area, so I wonder how the internet would fare when "the big one" hits.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2017

It's an interesting story but the application itself is just that, an application that needs WiFi or a cellular subscription to work - presumably one with DATA. Personally, I found FONGO to be excellent and it is a FREE telephone service I never ever hear about. Their web address is:

Thank you for bringing ZELLO to everyone's attention.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2017

Thanks for the update to some apparent information that was not explained as it should have been.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2017 might add FONGO is Canada ONLY...thx tho

Posted by:

08 Sep 2017

Hey Bob
Can't think we would need Zello here. More like an earthquake rumble than that.

Posted by:

Victoria Coles
08 Sep 2017

Thanks, Bob, for addressing Zello. I just discovered this app and your article clarified the very questions I had. Again, very helpful.

Posted by:

09 Sep 2017

Thank you once again for an excellent article, Bob. I would have dismissed it as nonsense altogether without having read your post.

Posted by:

09 Sep 2017

Bob, thanks for your explanation, we down loaded Zello the other day and we are still trying to figure out just how it works. We are in Port Charlotte Florida and waiting for Irma to come through. Hoping not to need it but trying to plan for the worst. Thanks again for your help.

Posted by:

10 Sep 2017

The instructions are impossible to read on an android so I was banned for having an open mic from one group. The application doesn't like my email address or user name.

Posted by:

Bob Greene
12 Sep 2017

Distributing malware through Zello or another, unvetted, unmonitored "walkie-talkie" phone app is probably inevitable, but people in dire peril cannot be bothered with concerns about data security.

However, those who wish only to install Zello (or another such app) for a rainy day should do due diligence. They should be alert to the possibility their new app may deliver major damage of a different kind, and well before the storms season arrives.

Phone hackers understand many iPhone or Android users regularly conduct banking and purchase transactions on the same phone which hosts the "humanitarian" phone app. Both iPhone and Android are host to exploits.

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