crowd at an emergency (J Hellerick/

Beacons alert app users of nearby hazards

Emergency communications sent to the public through broadcast media or digital signage are susceptible to breakdown when power and phone networks fail during disasters, but experts are exploring new alternatives.

“Disseminating emergency management information to people and informing them of dangers or evacuation routes is difficult,” said Ragib Hasan, a computer science associate professor and researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Hasan and his team have created and tested a new, Bluetooth-based system for disseminating emergency messages in an urban environment they call InSight.

InSight consists of a mobile app, beacons that responders can quickly scatter near the scene of an incident and a backend server disseminates the signals to the beacons. App users will receive the Bluetooth-based alert from the beacons without needing an internet connection. The inexpensive beacons can be easily deployed during disasters – responders riding in a car can scatter them at specific locations to quickly mark hazards or evacuation routes, university officials said.

The researchers tested the beacons by tossing them into a construction site, a traffic intersection and along an evacuation route, deploying them in less than seven minutes. Passersby on bikes or on foot received alerts on their smartphones when they came within 200 feet of the beacon. The system also works in storms, rain or darkness, when visibility is limited, the researchers said.

“Current warning methods require either a visible sign or a working phone or communication network -- neither of which may be useful in such disaster scenarios,” Hasan said. “The long range of the [InSight] signal ensures that users can get notified of the hazard from a safe distance.”

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