Austin-based app helping millions communicate with hurricane rescuers

Millions downloading Zello to use when cell signals go down

Zello app (KXAN Photo)
Zello app (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin area is working to strengthen the lines of communication between first responders and Central Texans in major emergencies like Harvey, Irma or other natural disasters. The goal is to ensure that even if the power is out and cell towers go down, people can still get the help they need.

The Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) will soon roll out its 10 countywide Text-to-911 service. Its implementation has faced delays after originally being intended to begin in the spring. CAPCOG leaders says technical routing issues pushed the start date back, but they’re promising it will be ready to launch by the end of September.

Across Travis County, first responders also use a special two-way radio system that’s hard wired, so even when cell towers go down, they can still communicate.

Meanwhile, Zello, an Austin-based app is filling in the gaps when calling 911 isn’t an option. It’s a walkie-talkie style app that works in places with WiFi or cell phone service. It can work with very little cell signal, in areas where calls may not go through.

“Even when the networks are marginal, terrible, or 2G, Zello will work, when it’s the last thing that will work,” said Zello CEO Bill Moore, explaining that it requires less data to use the app than to make a phone call. “It’s much more efficient about how it uses bandwidth, and it’s technology that’s been refined over a long time.”

The Cajun Navy used Zello in Houston while helping rescue people in areas flooded by Harvey.

This week, Zello is the number-one downloaded app, with a million downloads every day. Moore says most of those downloads are coming from users in Florida, who plan to use the app to communicate with family, friends and rescuers once Irma hits.

Moore says his team of about a dozen Austinites will work around the clock during the expected Category 5 storm, to make sure it’s performing optimally.

“A lot of people in Irma need it to work,” Moore said. “So we’re doing everything to make sure that they get what they need.”

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