Mobile App Further Prepares County of San Diego Citizens for Emergencies

About San Diego County Office of Emergency Services

San Diego County is the fourth largest county in the nation and the fifth most populous, covering a large area of southwestern California, from the sunny coast to eastern mountains and deserts. The county includes eighteen cities and a number of unincorporated areas. The Office of Emergency Services (OES) coordinates the overall county response to disasters and helps residents prepare for and respond to them. In addition, OES staffs the Operational Area Emergency Operations Center, a central facility which provides regional coordinated emergency response.


San Diego County has seen its share of emergencies. After devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007, the county sought to improve its emergency communication services. OES had updated its public information materials, moving from press releases and informational booklets to add a one-stop website. But the rapid rise of mobile devices created a new opportunity for getting real-time information into peoples’ hands. San Diego County wanted a mobile application and wanted it quickly, before the next fire season came around.


San Diego County OES began brainstorming development of the mobile application, SD Emergency, and selected AT&T to provide app development, management and hosting. The Mobile Application Development Platform from AT&T enables OES to extend its web content out to a wider public, providing in-depth information to help citizens prepare in advance of an emergency and delivering alerts during an event. The solution works across multiple operating systems, making the app available on many different devices. With support from the AT&T advanced mobile application team, San Diego County took SD Emergency from idea to app store in just nine months.

Trouble in Paradise

Known for its palm trees and sunny beaches, San Diego County is an image of paradise. But the county is not immune to emergencies. Earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, pandemics and terrorist attacks are all possible events. The most serious and recurring threat, however, is wildfires. The area’s dry summers create optimal brushfire conditions. “Humidity is down, nothing has been rained on in any significant way for months and the whole place is tinder dry,” said Ron Roberts, County Supervisor. When the hot, high-velocity Santa Ana winds start blowing across the landscape in early Fall, the result can be disastrous. In 2003, San Diego County had a ‘100 year fire’ that destroyed more than 1,000 homes and large swaths of backcountry.

To deal with these wildfires and other threats, San Diego County has developed some of the nation’s best emergency management services. The Office of Emergency Services helps residents countywide prepare for, respond to and survive emergencies. “We devise disaster related plans and procedures that benefit the entire region,” said OES Director Holly Crawford. When an emergency occurs, the office’s services include notifying agencies, coordinating resources and setting up local assistance centers.

Communicating with the public is key. “One of the most important things that we coordinate is information – letting people know what’s going on,” said Stephan Rea, OES Assistant Director. OES uses a range of communication modes, from press releases to booklets and Public Service Announcements. After the wildfires of 2003, OES implemented an improved website, providing a wide range of information about what to do before, during and after an emergency. During emergencies, the website is also a place to find updates about current conditions.

No Time for Landlines

After 2003, the next ‘100 year fire’ came all too soon. In 2007 the county experienced another devastating fire season. As the Santa Ana winds pushed fires into populated areas, officials had to evacuate more than 500,000 people. “We were reaching people almost only with landlines, which left a lot to be desired. The sheriff had to march his troops through the neighborhoods and, in some cases, literally go door to door to get the people out,” said Roberts.

The county’s reverse 911 system reached the region’s landlines, but only had access to mobile phone numbers if they had been proactively registered by residents. A burst of website traffic caused the site to crash. In an emergency, real-time information can save lives, and waiting for a knock on the door or an overwhelmed website to recover was not sufficient. OES knew there had to be better ways to get information to the public.

The county worked with a leading technology company to develop a cloud-based solution that provided a mobile-friendly web view and elevated the county’s readiness and Internet presence. The solution was highly scalable, allowing the county to meet virtually any load demand from wired or wireless browsers. As wireless devices grew into an ever larger presence in the market, however, it became clear that they deserved special attention.

While its website was rich with content and capable of handling millions of page views per hour, OES found that people are often not at their computers when an emergency occurs—but they’re likely to have their smartphones with them. This increased reliance on mobile devices changed the demand for OES services. Instead of looking for news on a website, said Crawford, “more and more people want immediate information in their hands.”

OES wanted to extend its information reach by giving residents alerts and critical information through a wide range of devices. “If we’re not changing the way we reach people, we’re not doing our job the best we can,” said Rea. As OES improved its ability to precisely monitor emergency conditions, it needed to effectively communicate that information. OES decided it needed to develop a mobile application. The decision came with a tight timeline. The county wanted the app available before the Fall 2012 fire season. This meant developing it from scratch in just nine months.

A Map to the App

San Diego County chose to develop the app, SD Emergency, with support from longtime service provider AT&T. This would be a big undertaking since not only would it be San Diego County’s first app, but it would also serve as the template for future ones. San Diego County wanted an expert on-board. “We decided to farm it out as a fully turn-key, supported solution by a vendor that had deep knowledge in that space,” said Adrian Gonzalez, Public Safety Group IT Manager. AT&T developed the cross-platform native application by utilizing the Mobile Application Development Platform from AT&T to provide a versatile, highly reliable and robust solution.

County staff spent months brainstorming how the app should work, look and flow. “We wanted to make sure the application was agile, focused on the message we wanted and developed in a way that was inviting, useful and engaging,” said Gonzalez. Staff completed storyboards and mock-ups, but all of that dreaming needed a practical foundation. “AT&T really helped us solidify our ideas. They helped us make modifications that still got us to where we wanted to be, but maybe not in the way we imagined. They also did a lot for us as far as quality control and testing,” said Rea. “AT&T has been an essential partner in this,” Roberts added.

Dedicated to emergency preparedness and response, SD Emergency provides a range of information and services, including emergency maps, evacuation routes, twitter feeds and checklists. The app development platform works across a variety of mobile operating platforms, making it widely accessible.

SD Emergency was completed on time and on budget. “AT&T gave us a map of what we needed to do to meet the deadline,” Rea said. The engagement with AT&T started in June, and the app was completed and available in September. The week it was released it was one of the top five apps in the country. There have been more than 22,000 downloads so far. The county expects that number to jump to 200,000 when the next big emergency occurs.

Keeping the Public Informed

SD Emergency provides real-time information that is easy to access. “We knew with a mobile application we could reach far more people in a far more effective way,” said Roberts.

The app is also dedicated to emergency preparation and planning. “It takes users all the way from one end of the emergency to the other,” Roberts said. Users can make and track emergency plans, keep a checklist for preparing emergency kits and look up more detailed event information. “We always recommend that individuals be prepared to be independent for at least the first 72 hours,” said Crawford. In addition, a well-informed and well-prepared public is beneficial for relief efforts. “Having people comfortable in responding during a disaster will really help the first responders and our office manage evacuations,” Rea explained.

AT&T also hosts the app, which gives OES fewer issues to worry about. Remote hosting in robust state-of-the-art facilities removes the hardware from threats caused by local conditions and helps OES manage its resources efficiently. “We decided not to worry about trying to build up either internal hardware infrastructure or expertise in the area,” Gonzalez said.

Updates are just as easy. OES uploads them to its website, where they are automatically adapted and formatted for the app. OES staff can make these updates from anywhere, even their mobile devices. “We wanted to keep the steps as simple as possible,” said Gonzalez. “When someone writes a single message it can be amplified out to the proper platforms and they don’t have to worry about technology and how it gets out there. They just publish a message and it goes to the right sources.”

An Adaptable Tool

OES has already put the app to good use. San Diego County has had several smaller scale emergencies, such as gas leaks and less severe fires, since rolling out SD Emergency. “We’ve been able to use the app between the big disasters,” said Rea. It has proven useful to users all year long. And the appearance of occasional notices about smaller emergencies helps remind users that the app is there and providing value, a reminder that will pay dividends should larger emergencies recur.

OES has made the app more regional, giving each city space where it can relay information about hazards specific to its jurisdiction. OES also plans to expand the app’s emergency preparedness features. Updates might include routine reminders like refreshing emergency water supplies. “We want to make sure that if we take up room in someone’s phone, they want to keep the app,” said Gonzalez. San Diego County is also working to develop different apps to address other county services, both internal and public. The Medical Examiner’s Office and the Probation Office are two of the many county agencies in line.

Another expected improvement that the county is awaiting: adding the ability to “push” up-to-date information about the situation to app users in near real time. In an emergency, people might not have time to search a website, or even access one, though emergency conditions such as shelter locations and evacuation routes can change in an instant. But app users will be able to receive updated alerts throughout an emergency. With push notification, the app delivers information directly to the users, increasing the likelihood that citizens will be informed. “You don’t have to go out and seek it, it will just pop up on your phone,” Crawford explained.

“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Roberts. “When I’m presenting to an audience, people will start downloading the app almost at the start of my talk.” Some of the interested parties are close neighbors. “Nearby counties have been curious about how they can repeat this model,” said Gonzalez. The solution is versatile enough to be replicated or tailored to fit specific needs. “Communities can customize it to suit their own circumstances,” said Roberts.

The SD Emergency app puts San Diego County in a leadership role among emergency service organizations. “We’re way ahead. It’s been just five years since the fires in 2007, and I feel like we’re 50 years ahead of where we were,” Roberts said. Crawford agreed, “This is a great step forward with our public communication abilities. We’re happy with the product and looking forward to what’s to come.”

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