Zello app connects storm victims with rescuers

It's not an overstatement to say that an app called Zello has saved lives over the last few days as Hurricane Harvey dumped feet of water on Texas.

The app works like a walkie-talkie, using WiFi to provide users with a variety of channels for communication. There are specific channels, for example, for rescues in the cities of Port Arthur and Houston.

There is a channel for people volunteering their boats and another for animal rescues. The channels are similar to CB radio channels, except users can create channels and name them for specific purposes. KTRK reporter Kaitlin McCulley told me that journalists, police officers and volunteers are using Zello and another app called Glymse to stay on top of rescues. Glympse allows others to track your location.

Rescuers open the app, and anybody who wants to track their progress can do so.

"Sometimes the information is not as updated as the coordinators might want, but I have found that it is one way for us to know where boats and rescuers are," she said. "They get you in the right area and you can find the information to report."

Bill Moore, the CEO of Zello, tells Poynter that the company designed the app to work with low-quality connections and low battery.

"So even when you have a bad phone connection you will be able to hear the audio clearly on Zello,” Moore said.

Journalists in hotspots around the world have used Zello more than American journalists have until now, Moore said. Uprisings in Russia, Ukraine and Venezuela all triggered use of the app. But the app's recent use in the United States has been gratifying.

“It is satisfying to be in Texas and help Texas,” Moore said. "Some of our employees have family in Houston."

The Cajun Navy, a volunteer rescue group of boaters, was born during Hurricane Katrina and Glympse and Zello to coordinate their boat rescues. They started using the app last year when a hurricane hit Louisiana.

Zello says it has 100 million users around the world. It started 10 years ago as “Loudtalks” in Russia. Five years ago, Loudtalks relocated to Austin, Texas and changed its name. Zello has a for-pay app that businesses, such as hotels are using as a private communications channel.

Glympse has public tags and private tags. The Cajun Navy, for example, has a public tag that will allow you to track each member who is out on calls.

To get around flooded streets, rescuers are using Waze, the crowdsourced navigation app. It provides more detailed guidance than the official DriveTexas.org website run by the state highway department.

These apps will become increasingly important for journalists as police departments increasingly encrypt their two-way radio signals. Obviously, journalists should treat what they hear on these apps carefully and not report details that they hear until they confirm the information.

In this two-minute video, I will take you on a tour of the app:

How to use these: Download the Zello app and the Glympse app. On Zello, click the menu bar, then add channels. You can search for key words to find a channel that interests you.

I found the most compelling channels Wednesday to be Port Arthur Harvey Rescue channel where I heard people calling who said they were standing in chest-deep water and a woman who was on a rooftop with a child.

The app has two handy features. The channel coordinators ask the callers to send a text with an address, phone number, and — if possible — a photo. The channel also records every single transmission. So if you miss details on a call, just click on the name of the person who called, and you can hear the recording.

Some of the most active Zello rescue channels right now are: CajunNavy (password “help”) Texas Search and Rescue The Cajun Navy Dispatch Boaterstexas The Zello-based rescuers want people in need to also enter information on a website.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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