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SOS Apps for Home and Away

Turn your smart phone into an emergency tool kit for you, your car, your pets and more

By Linda Bernstein | July 26, 2013
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Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Last August I was in Savannah, Ga., for a conference with some business associates. One evening, while waiting for a ferry to shuttle us across the river to the quaint shops and famous seafood restaurants, we noticed dark swirling clouds rapidly gathering on the horizon. I whipped out my iPhone and clicked on one of my favorite apps, Dark Sky. The radar revealed that a monsoon-like downpour would be overhead in five minutes. We broke into a sprint and arrived back at the hotel lobby just as violent raindrops began pummeling the pavement.
 
Compared with political upheavals and true natural disasters, a nasty rainstorm doesn’t exactly count as a crisis. Yet had we gotten on that ferry, we would have been stranded for hours, away from our hotel and unable to go anywhere without getting drenched. A $4 phone app kept us safe, dry and within reach of our climate-controlled hotel rooms.
 
I travel a lot, so my iPhone is loaded with emergency-averting apps. I can track delayed planes on any airline, find an auto-repair shop anywhere in the country or be guided through administering CPR. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use most of them. Still, it’s good to be prepared.

(MORE: 10 Travel Apps to Make Your Trip Easier, Safer and More Fun)

These 10 apps are like the first-aid kit you keep in your car or the flashlights, crank radios and bottled water you have on hand in your home just in case. Most of these apps are free, but should you ever find yourself in an emergency situation at home or abroad, you’ll find all of them priceless.
 
Help at the Tap on the Screen
 
1. Dark Sky
Platform: Apple iPhone and iPad ($3.99)
Not your grandmother’s weather app, Dark Sky shows you a visually enhanced radar screen for your exact location, picked up via GPS. (This is one of the few mobile apps for which I have turned on GPS.) Forecasts — short, sweet and covering the next 60 minutes — show on the home screen, along with the temperature.
 
The print might read, “Now –> Mostly Cloudy, 76°/Next Hour –> Mostly Cloudy.” Move the box with a flick of your finger and the app gives a terse 24-hour summary. Tap “radar” to see an unusually vivid view of clouds and storms. Dark Sky can also provide a voyeuristic link to other places where nasty stuff is coming down. Weather predictors are notoriously wrong, but because this app is so localized, it’s almost always accurate.
 
2. RepairPal Auto Repair Expert 
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
You’re driving down an unfamiliar highway. Suddenly you hear a horrible clunk. How do you find a reliable mechanic or know the average price for the kind of work your car needs? RepairPal to the rescue.
 
From the home screen, tap “find a shop” and you’ll get a list of reputable businesses in the area. (If you have AAA, the app will make the call for you.) When the mechanic tells you the cost, touch “estimate” to see the going rate for this kind of job in the surrounding area, broken down by parts and labor. Fill out the information under “My Car” and the app will keep a maintenance record available at the touch of a finger.
 
3. PetFirstAid
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone ($3.99)
My daughter’s dog recently ate mouse poison and suffered liver failure (he’s fine now). So I can assure you that $3.99 is a bargain to protect your furry or feathered friend. PetFirstAid is rich in pictures and videos that cover all sorts of emergencies for about any kind of creature, including rescue breathing and CPR. This potentially lifesaving information is stored on your phone, so you have access even in the wilderness. You can also create a file of vaccination histories, medications and other information for multiple pets and to share with a new vet.

MORE: 5 Best Apps for Getting and Staying Organized)
  
4. Smart Traveler
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
This app is a great resource for vacationers and business travelers. One tap brings you to maps, travel warnings and other safety information for any country. Another touch lists all the U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe. Enroll in “e-tineraries,” and you’ll automatically receive push notifications should the State Department issue any warnings for the location you are visiting.
 
A bit of fun: Give your phone a shake and the app will serve up information about a randomly selected country. All this information is available on the State Department website, but I like how this app puts travel safety in my pocket.
 
5. !Emergency!
Platform: Apple iPhone (99 cents)
You’re in Buenos Aires and your hotel catches fire. Do you know what number to dial to get the police or fire department? I don’t either, but !Emergency! does. Launch, and it determines your geolocation. Confirm, and it will tell you the emergency services number and even dial it for you. A new update also gives the address (appearing as a pin on a map) of the nearest American embassy and the closest medical facility.
 
6. FlightView
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone (free ­– $3.99)
Now you can know flight information for almost any airline anyplace in the world. FlightView will notify you about delays that may affect connecting flights so you’ll have a jump on planning alternate routes. You can also watch the path of any plane as it travels. Other features include sharing flight information with friends, getting directions to and around all airports, plus the ability to create your own database and save itineraries for future reference. The premium version ($3.99) incorporates weather information (less exciting) and a view of the flight board for arrivals and departures at the airport.

(MORE: Irresistible, Cool, Fun Apps)
 
7. Waze
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
If you think you don’t need another social network, you don’t know Waze, the app that connects you to drivers right in your area and all over the country. Using data supplied by others on the road, Waze tells you about current traffic and will direct you to alternate routes when a road is closed or congested because of, say, an accident or flash flood. Other Wazers post the locations of hidden police cars and road hazards. (Because you can’t use this app while driving, passengers come in handy.) Part of the fun is finding people you know stuck in the same jams! Not for nothing, Google has recently purchased Waze.
 
8. Pocket First Aid and CPR
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad ($1.99)
Brought to you by the American Heart Association, this app contains information that could save someone’s life — or possibly your own. Hundreds of pages of information and detailed videos illustrate how to respond in critical first-aid situations. Most important are the clear instructions for CPR. All of the videos and information pages, along with a tab where you can keep your own and your family’s medical and insurance profiles, remain in the memory of your phone, available when you are out of cellphone and Wi-Fi range.
 
9. Google Translate
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
Can you speak the language of the country you’re visiting? Do you need directions? How about deciphering a menu? 'Nuff said. Google Translate recognizes 70 languages and while sometimes the translations may be a little bizarre, this can be a lifesaver when sign language can’t convey “my grandson is allergic to peanuts.”
 
10. Smart ICE-Family
Platform: Apple iPhone ($2.99)
This app takes the idea that everyone should have an ICE (in case of emergency) listing in his or her contacts one step further. EMS workers can activate a previously recorded message that lists all your vital medical and personal information. Forms are HIPPA compliant, which cuts down on paperwork once you get to the hospital. The app stores information for up to eight people. 
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