Can Zello Save You In a Hurricane?
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.
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?
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 8 Sep 2017
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