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What are Zello and Firechat, the apps people are downloading for Hurricane Florence?

The Zello app is a walkie-talkie or push-to-talk application that can work over wi-fi or weak cell signals, making it useful for  keeping in constant contact with loved ones during disasters like Hurricane Florence.
The Zello app is a walkie-talkie or push-to-talk application that can work over wi-fi or weak cell signals, making it useful for keeping in constant contact with loved ones during disasters like Hurricane Florence. Zello

The smartphone app Zello shot to the top of the Android and iPhone trending lists this week as thousands of people downloaded it in preparation for Hurricane Florence. But what is Zello, and how can it help during a disaster?

On its store page, Zello describes itself as a “fast and simple walkie-talkie app” that works over Wi-Fi or your phone’s cellular network.

Here’s how it works:

Once your family and friends have the app and sign up, you can put them all in one big private group. From then on, the system works as if everyone had their own walkie-talkie radio. Press a big virtual microphone button, and everyone in the group will hear what you’re saying in real time.

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Press the microphone button to talk. The outer circle will glow green if someone else it talking. Zello/McClatchy

It runs in the background, so you can do other things and hear whenever anyone chimes in. You can also send text and picture messages to individual people or to the group. Plus, there are hundreds of public channels you can join where you can discuss the storm’s movements with other residents, call for help, or just chat.

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Some of the trending group channels available for listening and joining. Zello/McClatchy

However, the app does not turn your phone into a “true” walkie-talkie. Walkie-talkies use radio waves to communicate over short distances. Zello still requires either an internet connection or at least a weak cell phone signal.

That means if Zello works, your phone probably works normally too. But there are some advantages to using Zello instead.

Speaking with everyone at the same time is difficult using a traditional phone call, and the ability to group everyone into one single, private channel keeps everything simple. You can keep using the service on Wi-Fi or if cell signal quality drops and the ability to have options is important during a natural disaster where things can sometimes turn chaotic.

Zello was particularly popular a year ago when Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, so much so that Zello’s developers published a list of tips for using the app during a disaster.

The app is free, does not have advertisements, and can be downloaded on the Google Play and iPhone app store.

There are a few other apps that could be useful as well. If you are are going stick close together, Firechat works even without an internet or cell phone connection, making it useful for close, crowded areas where signal is weak or nonexistent, like disaster shelters. The app itself says it works in an area of around 200 feet. The app uses peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to keep everyone’s phones connected, and it can be downloaded from the Google Play and iPhone app store.

For updated information on storm movements, conditions and warnings, apps like the Red Cross’s Hurricane and ReadyNC for North Carolina residents can be good resources as well. Download them for free from the Google Play and iPhone app stores.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Florence

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