Storms test Red Cross' Tornado app

Can apps equal TV and radio in letting you know about threats? Reviews are mixed

The Red Cross is using apps to help warn people about potential weather calamities. One of its more popular efforts is its new Tornado app.

The app, which by last week had 270,000 downloads, was seeing a spike in downloads as a result of the outbreak of violent weather in Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest, according to a Red Cross spokeswoman.

The Red Cross app, which was released March 4 and updated on May 2, has quite a few features, including providing a historic map of tornadoes going back some 60 years.

The map feature may prevent hubris, especially for those who live outside the more active regions. Even historically quiet areas may look busy when decades of tornadoes are tallied. But most of the features are intended to prepare and educate users.

The app is getting good grades overall on Apple and Android platforms, but there are complaints. Some of the people who left recent reviews said they were not getting alerts.

The app advises its users to listen to local area radio, NOAA radio and TV stations for the latest information. But it also designed to provide an audible warning that is synched with NOAA's weather alerts.

The app sends tornado and severe thunderstorm watches and warnings. Tornado warnings, not watches, are pushed to the phone through the app even when it's closed along with a loud warning siren and audible voice declaring "tornado warning," a Red Cross spokeswoman said.

One of the more useful aspects of the app may be its lists of its shelter openings and its educational features. The app promises to update its lists of shelters every 30 minutes. The app includes a wealth information about how to prepare and what do after a storm strikes. It's also integrated with social networks, and has an "I'm safe,"-alert system.

If you're interested in playing a more active role, it provides links to classes on first aid, CPR and other needs.

Of the 541 users who reviewed the app on Google Playstore, 375 gave it a five star rating, and 62 one star. The balance was spread around the other stars.

Some reviewers said the app did not work. "In an area with several tornado[s] on the ground, I get no alerts," wrote one. Another said he wasn't warned when there was a tornado.

In the Apple app store, there were 107 ratings, 59 with five starts and 24 with one star. One wrote that "alerts were accurate and responsive," while another said the app wasn't showing the active advisories for his area.

A Red Cross spokeswoman said they are paying attention to user feedback.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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