Hundreds of people chimed in to hurricane relief channels on a walkie-talkie app less than 24 hours after Irma slammed into the tip of South Florida. One person asked where he could get food, another wondered which part of Florida was most in need of rescue efforts, and others simply provided weather updates.
“There are power lines all over the street,” one user said.
“I’m going to go help out neighbors, their trees got ripped out of the ground,” another added.
“I’m just trying to figure out how long this storm is going to last, all the power is out,” said a worried voice on the other end of the app.
But most just want to help.
“Does anybody here know how I can volunteer? I’m from Pennsylvania and plan on heading down there later today,” someone asked.
Zello is a free app that uses Wi-Fi and cellular networks to connect people from around the world by turning their phones into far-reaching walkie talkies. Most of its users come from outside the U.S., but it was used heavily in August and September during the devastating storms that hit the Texas Coast and Florida.
The app added six million new users in one week between Harvey and Irma, making it the top free app on the iOS App Store and bringing its total user base to more than 100 million, according to CEO Bill Moore.
To use the app, you’ll need to create an account and add basic information to your profile, including your name, location, and languages. Things will look pretty scarce the first time you log in. There are “Recents,” “Contacts,” and “Channels” tabs, all of which are blank until you add a channel to your feed.
I went straight into “trending channels” looking for Hurricane Irma relief and immediately came across four different stations. The most popular was “Hurricane IRMA rescue and recovery” with more than 700 active users listening in on Monday morning.
Once you listen to the admin’s pre-recorded rules, you’ll be thrown right into the radio channel. From there, you can listen in as people talk one-by-one about their situation, or add to the conversation by pressing and holding a large record button. You can also record audio clips or take photos and add them to the channel’s feed.
It’s a simple, effective app that faces a common social media problem: people don’t follow the rules. Moore explained to me how his company had to add a number of anti-troll features to keep bad actors from ruining a constructive discussion. I came across this a few times, when obnoxious people joined an emergency line only to hold on to the record button and yell a rapid string of profanities until they were banned by the channel’s moderators. That typically only took a few seconds, but it was enough to throw off safety efforts.
“They would bring up the problems, another one was other channels [that were] trending would come wreak havoc on these emergency channels and say ‘we want to cause problems because you’re beating us in trending,” Moore told Recode.
Another limitation is the toll the app takes on your phone’s battery. My phone dropped 30 percent listening to two channels simultaneously over about an hour—a serious problem for anyone needing help in an emergency.
Moore told the Daily Dot the app was originally created to replace texting and launched in 2010 as an early push-to-talk social app. It has since enjoyed success in Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, and Ukraine, peaking at the height of those country’s protest movements. What makes it so useful is that it can connect two people from across the world as long as they have a stable 2G connection.
“When the stakes are high and there is a large number of people who need to communicate and help each other—that type of communication works well for those situations,” Moore said.
A more business-focused Zello app is used by taxi companies, hotels, and ride-hailing drivers to keep connected with employers and employees.
“Companies will adopt ski helmets with a button on the side that work with Zello or motorcycle intercom systems or these heavy-duty really loud speaker mics of the style police officers use,” Moore said.
Other channels I found on the consumer-facing app include a “friendly chat channel” for intellectual conversations, a community channel for Filipinos, half a dozen or so Christian channels, and a German fan club for The Three Musketeers.