Tornado Alert App

Tornado Alert LogoI live two hours south of Joplin, MO.
Almost a year ago a tornado drove through the middle of this small town and destroyed everything in its path. I had only recently moved to this area and figured that while it was really bad, it may not be entirely uncommon. Then I did a bad thing: I felt bad, but I did nothing.
Tornado season ended and I watched as people slowly put their lives back together. To this day my wife sends me pictures of the animals the Humane Society is *still* finding as a result of the aftermath.

Tornado season started again rather suddenly a few weeks ago. This time, however, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw – two children, one almost the same age as our youngest son, picked up and thrown hundreds of feet by a tornado. Their families didn’t know a tornado was headed their way, and by the time they found out it was too late. Everyone in both families died that day.

With the incredible amount of technology at our disposal, I found it saddening that we weren’t doing more to save lives. People still listen to the news, and wait many minutes before tornados are spotted before they hear about them. These precious minutes are far too long.

No more.

I present to you, Tornado Alert.
This simple app runs on almost any Android phone sold in the last 2 years.
The key thing that sets it apart from every other tornado alerting application I’ve seen is that Tornado Alert is almost entirely crowd sourced.

What does this mean?
It means that if you install the application, and you spot a tornado, you can press *one button* on the menu, and alert other people with the same app within 10 miles. Fast.

Fast, eh? How fast?
5-10 seconds. That fast. The National Weather Service and TV stations often takes upwards of 5 minutes to report a tornado. If you’re listening to a live broadcast and waiting for confirmation of a tornado, it could be too late. These services, while invaluable and life saving in and of themselves, also require your TV or radio to still be on. Anyone who has lived through a tornado producing storm knows that electricity is often the first service to be lost.

How does Tornado Alert alert me?
When a new Tornado Warning or Tornado Watch is issued by the National Weather Service, we immediately send a notification to your phone.
If you see a tornado in your area, you simple press the “Tornado Near Me!” button, and a notification is sent to all other users in the area.
You won’t get alerted more than once every 5 minutes for the same thing – the last thing you need when you’re trying to get to safety is to be bugged by your phone.

Oh yeah? I bet you charge a lot for this. There’s an iPhone app that will alert me and costs $10!
Zero – That’s exactly how much you will pay, now and forever. The app is and will remain completely free to you. I have only one motivation for this – I don’t want anyone else to die from something completely preventable. Children need their parents, and communities need families. Let’s help each other stay alive.
In future we will look for other ways to help support the service, either through sponsorship or ads, or something. There will also be a version of the software you can pay for if you want to donate to running the service, but there is no obligation to do so.

The future
The application is in its first release. I feel it is in a good state to get out and start being immediately useful. We do however have a number of features which we’ll be working into future versions:

  • Integration with social media: When you spot a tornado, we’ll post on your Facebook wall and twitter, so your friends and family know what is happening.
  • Alerts via phone calls: Currently we can only use notification sounds on your phone to alert you. In future we’ll add the ability for you to receive a phone call too.
  • Take pictures of the tornado and share them with others.
  • Differentiated between high-priority and low-priority alerts. Currently we assume everything is high priority.
  • Any other options people ask for πŸ™‚
  • Versions for iPhones and Blackberry devices (help is appreciated on these)

Please, take a look at the application, try it out. It’s very light weight, and hopefully it can help save a life this tornado season.
You can find the application in the Android Market / Google Play called “Tornado Alert” or go: HERE.

16 thoughts on “Tornado Alert App

  1. Reply
    Ben C - March 18, 2012

    I haven’t downloaded the app yet, but I like the idea and I’m very much on board with the motivation. Sadly, people often wait until it’s too late to seek shelter, ignoring warnings until they see the tornado themselves or hear from someone else about it. Hopefully this app can help spread that information faster and get more people seeking shelter sooner.

    I wonder what your source is for the NWS and media waiting on tornado reports. The last stats I’ve seen show that the nationwide lead time for tornado warnings averages above 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes from the time a warning is issued until the tornado actually begins. Granted, sometimes the warning isn’t issued until after the tornado has struck, but in most of those cases no one else saw the tornado either.

    Please don’t misconstrue my comment as being negative, I just get defensive when it cones to the warning process. I think this app will be a great asset. Anything that helps get warning information into the public’s attention is a positive.

    1. Reply
      Av - March 18, 2012

      Ben! You’re 100% correct.
      The lead time is correct, the NWS is really good at predicting where tornados may strike. The time delay is in getting information about tornados which have touched down to the public.
      In turn, people as you said don’t treat sirens and NWS alerts to impending tornados as seriously as they should.
      Laura Myers at Mississippi State University did interviews with 2000 people and found that people want double confirmation. If they see a tornado, they want to hear more on the news. If they hear things on the news, they want to talk to friends. They want to know for certain that they’re in imminent danger before seeking shelter – and by then it can be far too late, exactly as you say.

      The hope here is that people will take this as greater motivation to get moving. At the end of the day there’s only so much we can do. There will always be people who don’t do anything until a tornado hits their front door. But if the sirens are already going off and then people start getting notifications that tornados has started to touch down in their immediate vicinity, maybe it will be what they need to duck and cover πŸ™‚

  2. Reply
    Derek - March 18, 2012

    God bless you for doing this. Over the last few years, I have had the same thoughts as you! So you are doing a wonderful thing here.

    There is only one Caveat….the long term value of this creative system very much depends on people being knowledgeable about the difference between wall clouds, rotating wall clouds, funnel clouds, tornadoes on the ground, rrain-wrapped tornadoes, hail shafts, and so on. Many a reported tornado, once investigated by a trained NWS investigator, turns out to be an incorrect claim, and we don’t want the system to ‘cry wolf’ too often or it will eventually be ignored like the sirens often are.

    regards,

    Derek

    1. Reply
      Av - March 18, 2012

      You’re very right. Some of these things will have to be adjusted as we learn more, and I expect there may have to be an educational component.
      Maybe the first time you open the app, it explains a few of these models and helps to both educate users and increase the positive identification rate.

  3. Reply
    Derek - March 18, 2012

    God bless you for doing this. Over the last few years, I have had the same thoughts as you! So you are doing a wonderful thing here.

    There is only one Caveat….the long term value of this creative system very much depends on people being knowledgeable about the difference between wall clouds, rotating wall clouds, funnel clouds, tornadoes on the ground, rrain-wrapped tornadoes, hail shafts, and so on. Many a reported tornado, once investigated by a trained NWS investigator, turns out to be an incorrect claim, and we don’t want the system to ‘cry wolf’ too often or it will eventually be ignored like the sirens often are.

    regards,

    Derek
    p.s. Would there be a way for you to make this ap work in Canada? We get tornadoes too…..including some of the killer variety.

    1. Reply
      Av - March 18, 2012

      Hi Derek! Yes, I’ll definitely find out how to do this in Canada.
      Currently in the US. the National Weather Service sets up tornado alerts per-county, and we use this information in the alerts. If we can find out how the Canadian government reports tornado warnings, and how to tell if a person is near one, we can definitely do it!

  4. Reply
    NM Whitney Jr - March 24, 2012

    iPhone version?

    1. Reply
      Av - March 24, 2012

      Hello Mr. Whitney!
      I am working on it right now! Should be done in the next week, and then we just have to wait for Apple to approve it. That can, unfortunately, take a couple of weeks. I couldn’t find anyone to help me code it, so i’m having to learn as I go! Thank you for your interest! I’ll post here when it’s done, and I get it sent in. πŸ™‚

  5. Reply
    j.lillibridge - April 3, 2012

    Would this work if you are traveling across country or do you have to know which county/city you are in? I have the Ford Sync system with weather channel but it does no good if you don’t know what county you are in. I am afraid of driving into the path of a tornado thinking that it is just rain.

    1. Reply
      Av - April 3, 2012

      Hi! The app will work as you want, but you should know there are two important things here:

      1. The app will warn you if you go into an area that is a tornado warning or tornado watch county. You do not need to change anything or update the app in any way. It knows where you are and if you need to be warned.
      2. The app depends on there being other people around you, who can warn you of a tornado. So if you’re driving through an area where there aren’t many other app users, this may not work. However, even without this you’ll still be told if you’re in a tornado warning/watch and you should always take the appropriate precautions.

      We semi-regularly update our twitter account to how how much our coverage for reporters and users is growing:
      https://twitter.com/#!/tornadoalertapp
      If you’re driving around much of central Oklahoma, down through Texas where there are a LOT of users right now you have a high probability of someone noticing a tornado and telling you quickly.

      We’re adding new users are a pretty fast pace and expect a lot more of the critical areas to be fully covered soon.
      Remember: if you spot a tornado, use the app and let people around you know, too!

  6. Reply
    greg - April 4, 2012

    Thanks for your work on this. when i opened the app and clicked on settings, i saw a button that said tornadoes near me. so, thinking that this would show warnings that were near me, I hit the button. I then realized that I had reported a warning and found no way to cancel. I hope this feedback helps

    1. Reply
      Av - April 4, 2012

      Hi Greg! That’s ok, we have safeguards built in here for such events. Don’t worry, your notification didn’t inadvertently send out a message to hundreds of people πŸ™‚
      We really appreciate the feedback though – there should be a way to cancel stuff you’ve submitted. I’ll look in to that!

  7. Reply
    Sam - February 22, 2013

    Will the alert break through silent mode? And what does it sound like? Thanks.

    1. Reply
      Av - February 22, 2013

      The alert will make the same sound your other notifications (eg, text messages) do.
      If you have these set to silent, the app will not make any sounds.
      If you set it to vibrate, it will vibrate.

  8. Reply
    LAUREN - March 12, 2013

    My local news was recommending your app this week. They said that it would sound an alarm even if the phone is turned off – is that correct? I normall only have my phone on during my work hours so I’m wondering if it would really help me that much.

    Thanks,
    Lauren

    1. Reply
      Av - March 12, 2013

      Hi Lauren! Thanks for finding this! Unfortunately *nothing* can alert you when your phone is off. However if you put your phone on silent it WILL vibrate when there is an alert to let you know discretely πŸ™‚

      Which news paper was this? We would love to see! Thank you so much!

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