RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – When a disaster like a hurricane hits, people need to communicate and traditional lines of commutation can break down.
Since Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, there’s a lot of buzz about a cellphone app called Zello which turns your phone into a walkie-talkie (Similar to the old Nextel push-to talk system that was popular in the 90s).
Zello is a free app that allows uses a fraction of the bandwidth that a regular phone call uses, so when the cell phone calls can’t get through, Zello might be helpful in an emergency situation.
CBS North Carolina’s consumer reporter Steve Sbraccia tested out the app.
He says the sound quality is great – and it’s easy to use.
You can talk one-on-one with a single person who is a registered user, or you can form communication groups.
Zello came to prominence when Harvey blasted Houston and a lot of rescuers in that area began using it to communicate in groups to coordinate their efforts.
But, here’s a big warning – if cell phone service or internet goes down– Zello will not work.
Do not believe the hype on the internet claiming Zello works without cell service.
On its Facebook page and on other social media sites, the company that developed the app warns:
“Zello requires Internet service using either Wi-Fi or cellular data of at least 2G.”
Zello also cautions the app uses a lot of battery power on your cellphone, so using it a frequently will drain your phone. You’ll need to have some way to keep your phone charged if you intend to use Zello a lot.
And remember if the power goes out, cell phone towers may stop working unless they have battery back-up.
But even battery back-ups for cell phone towers aren’t unlimited. Those site backups usually die after 2 hours.
So, if you are in an extended blackout you may find your Zello calls stop working after 2 hours or so because the cell phone towers have stopped working.
Want to dig deeper? Alexey Gavrilov, the founder of Zello posted this to
ZELLO’S Facebook page:
TIPS ON USING ZELLO DURING A DISASTER
By Alexey Gavrilov on September 6, 2017
DISCLAIMER: This information is a guide for Zello users. It is not intended as a replacement for instructions from government emergency agencies or sanctioned rescue organizations. Please use at your own risk and discretion.
We have seen a large number of people signing up for Zello in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Over 1 million people have joined in the last day, with most coming from Puerto Rico and Florida. While Zello has been helpful in Harvey relief efforts, it is not a hurricane rescue tool and is only as useful as the people who use it, and as reliable as the data network available. This information will help you understand what Zello can and cannot do, and how to be better prepared.
DURING AND AFTER A DISASTER:
1. If there is no Wi-Fi and no cellular data service, communication apps (including Zello) WON’T WORK. However, this may not be an issue because, historically, mobile data networks have often remained at least partially operational, even after a severe disaster. Cellular towers often include battery or generator backup power, which lets them stay online for at least 2 hours, even after grid power is lost.
2. After a disaster, mobile networks will typically be overloaded with phone calls so don’t make phone calls unless you have an emergency and need to call 911. This will allow emergency calls to go through better and will also extend the lifespan of mobile cell towers running on backup power.
3. Text messaging apps and Zello use a fraction of bandwidth of phone calls and will often work when phone calls won’t get through.
4. Zello is suitable for real-time, large-group communications. Unlike texting, it may be more accessible to elderly people or small kids
5. When actively used, Zello will use a lot of battery. You can do the following to minimize battery drain:
– Keep your phone fully charged and have an external battery pack
– Turn phone screen off while listening unless you are connected to a power source — that will extend battery life of the phone by at least 2x
– If your phone battery is under 30%, turn off Zello. That way, it won’t use any power, and if someone sends you a message, you will still receive a push notification.
6. Different carriers use different networks and equipment, so it is best to have SIM cards from all the providers offering cell coverage in your area. For example, if you are using Verizon as your primary line, get a T-Mobile SIM card as a backup. Zello runs on all carriers.
7. 2G/3G and 4G networks, even from the same operator, may use different equipment. So if you cannot connect when using 4G, try switching to 2G or 3G, and it may start working. Zello is designed to work with the lowest bandwidth available and has been tested on 2G networks.
BEFORE A DISASTER:
1. Obey all evacuation orders! If you are in Florida, consider taking a few days off and visiting relatives. The best disaster communication is the one that never has to happen.
2. Use Zello channels to coordinate group efforts of getting supplies, gas, preparing your house for wind and rain. That way, you will get familiar with how Zello works. Instructions for using Zello on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry can be found in our “Quick Start Guides” section located in our Support Knowledge Base.
3. Find and connect to the local search and rescue channels on Zello or, if there is none, make your own.
4. Memorize your username and password. If your phone is damaged or battery is dead, you can install Zello on another device and re-connect with your contacts and channels.
5. Write down important phone numbers on a piece of cardboard and place in a waterproof baggie. If your phone goes dead, you can give this to rescuers in order to contact your family and friends and inform them that you are fine.
Please Stay Safe!