Crisis app prepares students for the worst

Mason has helped develop a new mobile app designed to teach students about what to do in an emergency.

The app “In Case of Crisis” provides detailed instructions for what to do in events ranging from severe weather and power outages to on-campus violence or bomb threats. It also lists emergency contacts and offers more general, basic information, like how to receive notifications of an emergency and how people with mobility impairments or disabilities should respond.

Mason’s Director of emergency management and fire safety David Farris met with Irving Burton Associates, the company that created the app, in 2012. While the Herndon-based company provided the framework for the product, Farris and his office colleagues were responsible for coming up with the content and specific events that the app would address, as well as the visual layout of the app. One of the main ideas Farris’s team thought of was the inclusion of a table of contents to allow users to find information as quickly as possible. They also suggested a couple of new features, such as a flashlight feature, that IBA could integrate into an updated version.

Farris said they decided to implement the app after realizing that students were not utilizing other resources. They distributed flip charts with much of the same information provided by the app to residence halls before students move in, but these would often get thrown away or tucked into a drawer and quickly forgotten.

“[It is] very easy from an administrative perspective to manage the app, and [is] accessible to our users. It’s very simple and intuitive,” Farris said.

It also provides a useful complement to the Mason Alerts system. Mason Alerts acts as a notification system, sending emails and text messages to make sure students are aware when an emergency occurs. By contrast, “In Case of Crisis” is intended as more of an informational resource and has the advantage of not being reliant on cellular service. It can be used even if cell towers go down or there is a power outage.

Farris stressed that they designed the app in the hopes that people would take the time to read through it and become familiar with the available information before an actual emergency occurs.

“It’s a great tool in a pinch if you need to look it up,” Farris said. “But the idea is we should all be familiar with how do you respond to an earthquake before an earthquake happens.

If you haven’t done that, then at least the information’s available to you when it does happen.”

The app stood out from competitors because IBA offered an affordable flat rate and unlimited downloads, unlike other companies that either charged users to download or had the university pay on a per download basis.

Farris noted that, while some other apps had niftier features like the ability to get tracked by friends and family when walking across campus, “In Case of Crisis” was easier to reference and use and was more geared toward providing information about handling an emergency.

“The timing’s right,” Farris said, explaining why they decided to move toward a mobile app for emergency response information now. “Most students now are carrying smart phones. If we had rolled this out a couple of years ago, that is something we’re concerned about.”

Farris added that they are still providing flip charts and posters to accommodate students who do not have an iPhone or Android.

“We want to make resources available in a number of different media so that everybody has access to information,” Farris said

The app is available for download from the app store and can be used like any other app. The Emergency Management Staff is currently focusing its attention on informing students about the app, creating posters, flyers and t-shirts that sport a QR code on the back that can be used to download the app. In addition, they have used the TV screens around campus to promote the app and announced it in previous Mason Alerts, including one sent during a recent earthquake drill on October 17.

Their goal is to have 10-20 percent of the Mason community using the app by Christmas time.

Ariana Vega, a junior majoring in art history, subscribes to Mason Alerts and is interested in the app.

“[If ] it’s easily accessible and doesn’t cause me more stress by requiring a lot of reading,”

Vega said.

According to Farris, the rate of download has indeed seen a steady increase. Early on, they saw a rate of five or six people per day, but more recently, that rate has ticked up closer to 12 to 13 people. However, they still hope to see even more of an increase.

“It’s going to take us a while to get to that 10-20 percent number if that’s our rate of adoption,” Farris said.

IBA has started developing new features that can be included in future updates, such as giving users the ability to report a crime.

“If you were to observe a crime,” Farris said. “[You would] be able to attach a picture or something like that and report your location and the crime to university police or local police.”

Farris said he hopes that nothing will ever happen.

“In the event that something does,” Farris said. “I want to make sure that we’ve done our absolute best to… help our students and we think this is a great way to do that.”

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