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Must-have Smartphone Alerts and Emergency Apps for Everyone

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Have you ever worried about how your family would stay connected and informed during an emergency? Imagine a scenario: a sudden storm warning, a power outage, or even an unexpected medical situation. In these moments, your smartphone can be a powerful tool to protect your family. Make sure you have these must-have alerts and emergency apps on your phone to help you stay informed and safe during emergencies.

get board with one white keys and one red key that says Get Alerts

Even before disaster strikes, it’s crucial to have a plan in place to keep your family connected. This includes creating a family emergency communication plan that outlines how everyone will stay informed and reach each other if traditional communication channels fail. This plan should incorporate a variety of communication methods after disasters, like text messaging (as it uses less bandwidth than calls), ham radios for longer-distance communication if needed, designated meeting locations in case cell service is unavailable, and apps like Zello for quick push-to-talk communication..

It’s amazing how smartphones have evolved into “do-everything” tiny computers. One fantastic evolutionary development in smartphone technology has been advancements in the ability to receive emergency alerts and the many apps with emergency capabilities. Both features are there to alert you to current or predicted emergencies, and give you tools to protect yourself and your loved ones. Let’s explore how to leverage these smartphone features alongside creating a family emergency communication plan, ensuring everyone stays informed and connected before, during, and after an emergency.


Emergency Alert System (EAS)

Most adults have seen and received test or warning messages from the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which uses broadcast TV, cable TV and radio to provide local, state, and national authorities the ability to warn specific populations of weather, natural disaster, and other hazards. In most areas in the U.S. the EAS has been upgraded to the current IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System).

Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)

Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) was established to meet Executive Order 13407 (2006), which in the wake of communication failures during and after Hurricane Katrina required an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the public in situations of “war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and wellbeing.“

IPAWS integrates and expands public alerting and warning from just radio and TV, to wireless devices, Internet applications, NOAA All-Hazards Weather Radios, and future communications technologies. IPAWS enables public safety officials at all levels of government to warn citizens via a diverse and integrated network of private sector communications systems.

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)

The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system delivers critical warnings and public safety information to the public on mobile devices. Participation by wireless service providers is voluntary, but most providers support WEAs. Those providers that participate adhere to technical and operational requirements established by the FCC.

Authorized local, state, tribal, and federal alerting authorities send WEAs through IPAWS to participating wireless providers, which then broadcast the alerts from cellular towers to mobile devices in affected areas. Specific features applicable to WEAs include:

  • Unique tone and vibration
  • Map-based alert capabilities with less than one tenth of a mile of overshoot
  • No need to opt in to receive WEA
  • No message congestion of mobile phone systemSupports up to 360 characters
  • Supports English and Spanish languages
  • Supports URLs and phone numbers
  • Rebroadcast of WEA for alert duration to assure receipt
  • Ability to update and/or cancel active WEA

WEAs automatically appear on the mobile device screen and support up to 360 characters of English and Spanish, and use a unique ringtone and vibration designed to draw attention and alert people to an emergency. The unique vibration, which distinguishes the alert from a text message, is particularly helpful to people with low vision and/or hearing disabilities.

WEAs are targeted to the specific geographic area of the emergency. If a WEA-capable mobile device is physically located in that area, it will automatically receive and display the message. For the alerting authority, their software allows rapid creation of a “polygon” around the exact area where the alert should go.

All the major U.S. wireless providers are participating in WEA on a voluntary basis. Wireless device manufacturers are currently selling mobile devices with WEA capability included, and most cell phones currently on the market are capable of receiving WEAs

Emergency Apps

While the EAS and IPAWS systems are designed to push information one-way out to your smartphone, apps on your phone can be resources where you can draw information you want from the app itself or the internet to your phone. We call apps that are specifically made to help you in a crisis, “Emergency Apps.”

Local Government Apps

In most areas, your county and/or city emergency management, fire department or law enforcement agencies will have their own emergency apps. For example, in my area the app is called “Ready San Bernardino County” and is a free download from the Google Play Store for Android, or the Apple Store for iPod/iPad. It’s sponsored by the county Office of Emergency Services, and it has information on how to prepare for disasters. It also receives emergency alerts, which are saved for your future reference. It’s pretty typical for this type of app.

Federal Government Apps

The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) app has features that help you prepare for disaster, resources during the crisis, and for major disasters it helps you find nearby life-sustaining assistance.

Healthcare Apps

Another type of local emergency app are those hosted by your medical group. Most of the big systems like Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente, and Sutter Health have proprietary apps; if you’re not sure if yours does, check their web site or search for it in the Apple or Play Store. These apps usually allow searches for locations where you can get care, order medication refills, and communicate with your doctor’s office.

Specific Emergency Apps

Below are descriptions of several emergency apps with different functions. It’s not possible to do an in-depth review of all of these apps; actually, I think the best way for you to determine those you feel are useful is to install them one at a time, and spend 10 minutes discovering their features. Use that wait at the DMV to check them out!

Safety & Security


Available for IPhone and Android, this security app has a “button” that acts like a dead-man switch you can activate if you are or feel like you might be in danger. If you end up needing help, release the button and the app will contact 911 and send your location to the authorities. Basic functions are free, premium features are a small in-app purchase.

First Aid

Red Cross First Aid

Available for IPhone and Android, this app has a lot of content onboard so it’s still useful with no internet connection. It can toggle from English to Spanish, and has written and video instructions to address common medical emergencies.

I was employed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services for 13 years. At times during disasters, I either staffed or supervised our Regional Emergency Operations Center in Southern California, supporting local government needs to reduce damage and save lives. While you’d be right in assuming that we had access to all types of information sources, sometimes they all failed us and we had to creatively seek out critical details.

For example, when evacuations occurred, emergency shelters were opened to accommodate the evacuees. One part of the Red Cross app allowed you to look up open shelters in a particular area; often the app revealed shelters that had been opened that we weren’t aware of. You can imagine how important that information would be to someone evacuated from their home in the middle of the night!


PulsePoint actually allows you, as a good Samaritan, to help someone having a cardiac event. It’s connect to 911 and can alert you to someone in distress near you and identifies locations of Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs). Perhaps most importantly, those trained in CPR can be notificed and perhaps provide life-saving care before paramedics can arrive on-scene. This is a particularly valuable app for those who know CPR. Be sure to fine-tune your settings to only receive alerts in the vicinity of your usual day-to day activities.


The Weather Channel-Radar

Available for IPhone and Android, it’s self-described as a severe-storm tracker with live weather maps and alerts. Lots of basic functionality plus premium features put a meteorologist in your pocket!

To receive a local forecast from the National Weather Service, download the mobile app by visiting While it’s available for iPhones and Androids, it’s not available in their stores.

NOAA Weather Radio

NOAA offers real-time weather updates via livestream and is available for both platforms.

Storm Shield

Storm Shield delivers sever weather alerts to your exact location through voice and push notification. This is a paid app and the higher tiers offer more functionality.

Medical Information

Web MD Symptom Checker

Available for IPhone and Android, as the title notes it allows you to input symptoms and returns with possible ailments that might cause them. That’s a great feature, but it also has a medication reminder, pharmacy locator, and discount medication finder.


Google Maps

Available for IPhone and Android, this is one of my most-used apps in good times and bad. Perfect for travel abroad, there are maps available for 220 countries! If you know a disaster is about to affect you, you can download an off-line map to use in case the internet or cell phone service goes down. On those occasions where you need to rapidly evacuate, this app can help you find alternate routes to avoid traffic jams. Definitely a favorite!

However, it’s important to remember the “two is one, one is none” concept when it comes to preparedness. As I just mentioned, while digital resources are fantastic, relying solely on smartphones has inherent risk in disasters because of the potential disruption to cell service and internet access. In addition to having a variety of ways to communicate after disasters, having a physical backup, like a good old-fashioned paper map, is essential. Many national parks and even some cities offer printable maps of their areas. Keeping a paper map and a compass in your car emergency kit can be a lifesaver if you need to navigate without digital tools.



An essential component of emergency preparedness is establishing a communication plan for your family. This plan should outline how everyone will stay informed and reach each other if traditional communication channels fail. This plan should also include ways to communicate after an emergency if cellphones don’t work.


Don’t forget about your college student! Many colleges and universities have their own emergency alert systems that can reach faculty, staff, and students with important information during crises. These systems often rely on phone calls, text messages, and emails, but they may require opting-in beforehand. Before your student heads off to campus, encourage them to sign up for these alerts. If the college allows parents or guardians to also opt-in, consider doing so as well. This extra layer of communication can provide peace of mind during emergencies and ensure everyone receives critical updates.

Recently, one Survival Mom reader shared how her son would get regular notices about evacuation drills through his school’s alert system. Then one afternoon, a few hours after a text about a drill, he received a text that the school was locked down. Later, they learned a knife-wielding assailant had attacked a woman in a commons area. These systems can work very well, so I encourage you to get signed up for them. Also, read more about preparing your student for campus emergencies.

Pro Tips for Using Alerts and Emergency Apps

Take advantage of the unique abilities of iPhone and Android smartphones by using both. In your household, you might have one person use an iPhone or iPad, and another have an Android phone or tablet. This strategy makes sure that in an emergency you have access to all apps and features that might be unique to one or the other system. For example, iPhone 14 and 15 models have a new emergency feature that uses satellite communication for summoning help when out of cell phone service areas. That’s incredible capability for something you can carry in a pocket.

X (formerly Twitter) can be a tremendous source of information posted by ordinary people in a disaster area. While we in Emergency Services and Emergency Operations treated the information as “intelligence,” and not confirmed “information,” it was often that we could make a quick phone call to verify the post. The pictures posted by X users are also very helpful in visualizing what was actually going on close to the action.

The best app for you will depend on your specific needs and location. It’s always a good idea to research and choose apps with strong reputations and positive user reviews.


What kind of emergency apps should I download?

There are a lot of emergency apps out there. I find it helps to think of them in terms of categories: local government, federal government, weather, first aid, navigation, safety& security, and communication. Look at each category and determine the app(s) that would be most useful to you. Download them AND learn how to use them.

How do I receive Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on my phone?

Most wireless service providers participate in WEA. These alerts deliver critical warnings directly to your phone, even if you’re not using it or haven’t downloaded any apps. No opt-in is required.

Final Thoughts

In today’s world, smartphones are more than just communication devices. By leveraging built-in alerts and a vast array of emergency apps, you can transform your phone into a powerful emergency preparedness toolkit. These resources provide real-time warnings, critical information, and tools to help you and your loved ones stay safe before, during, and after emergencies.

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