Widgets, Mobile Apps, and SMS: Essential Agency Tools for Summer Heat Safety, Hurricane Season, and Emergency Preparedness

Jul 28, 2016

According to recent Pew Research Center surveys, 45 percent of American adults have tablets and 68 percent have smartphones. While the majority of smartphone owners use their mobile devices to keep up with breaking news and stay informed about what is happening in their communities, nearly half, 40 percent, also reported using their smartphones to look up government services or information.

As is the case each summer, most of the U.S. is dealing with dangerous heat waves, and coastal regions face multiple threats of tropical storms and hurricanes. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), “heat is one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year and even more heat-related illnesses.” As of last Friday, July 22, almost 124 million people were under an Excessive Heat Warning, Excessive Heat Watch, or Heat Advisory. On Monday, July 25, The National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) reported in a 6 – 10 Day Temperature Probability Outlook that 59 percent of the country will continue to suffer extreme heat through August 4th.

A screen capture of a U.S. Heat map showing 59% of the country is expected to have higher than average temperatures from July 31 to August 4, 2016 from NOAA and NWS Climate Prediction Center website.

Additionally, there are still 4 months left in the 2016 hurricane season, which ends November 30th. Annually, there are an average of 12 tropical storms, 6 of which become hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this month, a tropical depression formed in the eastern region of the Pacific Ocean. Hurricane Darby grew into a tropical storm, then reached its peak as a Category 3 hurricane, as it headed for Hawaii. Thankfully, the storm’s power weakened before it hit the chain of islands as a tropical storm—but it still caused flooding and property damage in its wake.

The path of Tropical Storm Darby as it passes over Hawaii, July 25, 2016.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer essential website tools and mobile services to help the general public, businesses, and first responders nationwide as they prepare for and deal with disasters that can result from extreme weather conditions.

FEMA Website Widgets

Content syndication is an easy way for agencies to share important, timely information with their customers. FEMA offers 6 widgets you can add to your agency’s website with one simple line of code that allows you to customize height and width dimensions and add CSS to match your site’s design:

  • FEMA App—Connects users to the main page about the app with links to download it for various mobile devices.
  • Preparedness—Helpful links covering a variety of disaster situations and resources.
  • Severe Weather—Provides links to Ready.gov and FEMA’s blog so users can find out how to prepare for emergencies.
  • Kids Fire Safety—Tips and information on how to prepare children for emergency situations.
  • Are You a Disaster Survivor?—Information for individuals and families, including how to register for federal disaster aid.
  • Private Sector—Information for businesses and communities,including how to register for federal disaster aid.
Screen capture of the FEMA website widgets Kids Fire Safety display on the left and the i frame code on the right.

The FEMA App

FEMA’s mobile app, available for free in the iTunes App Store, Google Play, and Blackberry World, is designed to help families prepare for a wide array of natural and man-made disasters, and can help Americans recover, should a disaster affect their lives. Some key features of the app include:

Screen capture of the FEMA app's Heat Advisory for the Washington, DC area on July 25, 2016.
  • National Weather Service Alerts: The app enables users to receive weather alerts from NWS for up to 5 locations across the nation. This new feature allows users to receive push notifications on severe weather happening anywhere they select in the country, even if the phone is not located in the area, making it easy to follow severe weather that may be threatening family and friends. To the right is one of the Heat Advisory alerts I received for the Washington, DC area, warning us of the day’s expected high—95 to 100 degrees, with a Heat Index of 108 degrees—and tips on how to reduce risk and take extra precautions.
  • Safety Tips: Tips on how to stay safe before, during, and after over 20 types of hazards, including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
  • Preparation Checklist: Helps users put together emergency kits and develop family communication plans to determine how they will reunite with loved ones in the event of a disaster.
  • Disaster Reporter: Allows users to take a photograph in a disaster area and submit it, along with a short text description. All approved disaster-related photos and text are posted within the app and online.
FEMA app Disaster Reporter Map with photo from a U.S. location showing winter storm damage.
  • Maps of Disaster Resources: Users can locate and receive driving directions to open shelters and disaster recovery centers.
  • Apply for Assistance: The app provides easy access to apply for federal disaster assistance.
  • Blog: The FEMA Blog is included for users.
  • Information in Spanish: The app defaults to Spanish-language content for iOS and Android devices that have Spanish set as their default language.
FEMA app in Spanish.

The SAMHSA Disaster Response App

Utilities such as electricity and phone service often go down during natural disasters. This can create many difficulties for disaster survivors, particularly those in need of mental health or substance use support and resources. SAMHSA has a free Disaster Response App for behavioral health professionals which provides them with trauma- and disaster-related resources at their fingertips.

The app has 3 main sections:

The Disaster Response App's Treatment Locator shows 50 facilities within Washington, DC

Prepare to Deploy
Like the online version, responders can use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator within the Disaster Response App to find up to 50 in-patient, out-patient, and long-term care facilities across various emergency services within a 100-mile radius. These locations can be searched for and saved before deployment in case Internet connections in the field may be down.

On-the-Ground Assistance
An extensive collection of resources, including (but not limited to): the Treatment Locator, Hotlines and Critical Contacts, a Publications Directory (PDF files in English, Spanish, and Punjabi can be sent via text or email to survivors and their family members or caregivers, and to fellow colleagues), and a Behaviors and Interventions section that provides guidance on connecting with and providing services to survivors of all ages and different cultures, and tips for problem-solving and substance abuse indicators.

Post-deployment Guide
Provides content, links, and helpline phone numbers to assist responders who may need training and/or emotional support as they transition in returning to their regular duties.

The SAMHSA Behavioral Health Disaster Response App is available for free in the iTunes App Store, Google Play, and BlackBerry World. Since it launched in 2014, the app received a Silver Mobile Web Health Award from the National Health Information Center and has been downloaded over 8,200 times; use of the app, instead of printed Disaster Kits, has been estimated to have saved the agency over $73,000 in printing and shipping costs.

4FEMA Text Messages

The public can use FEMA’s Text Message program, 4FEMA, in a couple of ways:

  • Search for open shelters and open disaster recovery centers by zip code
  • Receive safety tips for specific disaster types
Screen capture of a user signing up for text messages from FEMA for hurricane information.

If one doesn’t have the FEMA app installed, they can text SHELTER and a Zip Code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find open shelters, and text DRC and a Zip Code to 43362 to find open disaster recovery centers.

Users can also subscribe to a variety of lists by sending a text message to 43362 with disaster-specific keywords such as HURRICANE, WILDFIRE, EARTHQUAKE, BLACKOUT, or PREPARE, among others. These safety tips are received bi-monthly and users can unsubscribe or resubscribe at any time.

For the full list of current keywords, visit FEMA’s Text Message page. Standard message and data rates from one’s carrier apply, and FEMA stresses that the Text Message program is not a substitute for calling local fire, EMS, police, or 9-1-1 during an emergency.

Additional Resources

NWS / NOAA heat-related auto deaths infographic.

To see how your agency can help NWS spread important weather safety messages on social media, visit their Summer Hurricanes and Summer Heat sections. For additional weather safety information, historical data, and additional apps, check out the following links:

You can download other helpful mobile government apps with just a few clicks from our USA.gov Federal Mobile Apps Directory. Federal agencies can get their apps listed in the directory by using the Federal Mobile Products Registry.

Got a great idea for a mobile product or service and need help planning or releasing it? Contact the Mobile Application Development Program. Are you a federal employee interested in how agencies are using mobile technologies and building government-wide solutions? Join the MobileGov Community of Practice with your .gov or .mil email address.