The world we live in has always been stressful and had its share of dangers. Today, whether due to population density, stress, social injustice or simply hype from the news media, it appears as if the risk to our personal safety and those of the ones we care about is at an all-time high. The stress of this is acerbated by the fact that it is easy to think there is nothing we can do about it, but that is frequently just the result of emotion overcoming logic, which is precisely what many of those inciting or manipulating these incidents want.
However, there are many things you can do to reduce this stress and increase the security of both yourself and those around you. One aspect is to make efficient use of a smart phone or tablet, the other is too learn to identify the situations that actually do put us at risk, as opposed to what the media, particularly the local media, and politicians say the risks are. The synergy between these two steps, will both help us feel safer and less stressed, as well as actually being safer, which frequently is not the same thing.
We’ll start with an examination of some of the safety and security apps currently available. Some of these have been around and evolving for several years, while others are relative newcomers. It is important to keep in mind that new versions and applications are becoming available every day, so it is wise to revisit the state of these apps on a regular basis to make sure that you are using the best one for your needs. I emphasize this, as there is no standard set of features regarding these applications, so you need to review them and determine which features make sense for your needs, as well as which interface works best for you. Also, when I’m talking about safety and security, this is a broad area with many permutations and interpretations. In most instances, I’ll be specifically referencing the Android version of the app, but many of these are also available in iOS or even Windows versions, I just have no way to test them.
Some of these apps might well substitute for what is commonly referred to as a lone operator alert transponder, which is frequently required if you are working in an isolated part of the laboratory or other facility, or simply working in the lab alone at night. The SOPs that an organization implements are highly variable. Some laboratories absolutely forbid anyone from working in a laboratory alone, simply due to the risk of accidents. Even here, there is a lot of variation in regards to whether you must have a second person working in the same physical area/laboratory, or just somewhere else in the building. There are trade-offs with each of these, but in all but the smallest labs, there are generally rules and procedures to allow you to signal for help in the event of an accident, or which will signal for you in the event that you cannot confirm that all is well. Outside of the lab, there are safety risks as well, it’s just the specifics that become less predictable. Unless you are working in a totally secured and patrolled campus area, there is always the risk of running into a ne’er-do-well who is lurking where they shouldn’t be or of simply tripping and injuring yourself, so that you are immobilized. Anything you can do to reduce the risk from those who might wish you ill, whether you specifically or to targets-of-opportunity, is worth at least considering and potentially implementing.
Living in a state that allows open permit carry of firearms, I guarantee you will always find those who recommend purchasing and carrying a gun with you. While there are indeed times where that strategy can be useful and work out well, it makes a number of assumptions.
- Firstly, it assumes that you will be able to access your weapon when you need it. Even in open carry states, firearms are frequently forbidden in many of the areas or buildings where you might wish to go.
- Secondly, it assumes that you will be able to access your weapon if required. For many people, these are fallacious assumptions. Particularly during cold or wet weather, odds are that any weapon would be under a coat or otherwise hard to quickly access. Relatedly, for a gun to be most successful as a deterrent, the potential perpetrator must be aware that you have it, so that they move on to easier targets. Unless you are planning to walk around with the gun in your hand, this diminishes its affect as a deterrent, while probably increasing your risk of being shot by someone else who freaks out when they see you waving a gun.
- Thirdly, a gun is only going to be an effective deterrent if your attacker believes that you are going to use it. If you ever do have the necessity of pointing a gun at anyone, you have to be prepared and willing to kill them, as just trying to use it to frighten them off or wound them is just about as safe as playing Russian Roulette with an automatic pistol.
Generally, a much safer approach is to reduce your attractiveness to any potential assailant. Other than when you are in a crowded situation and it is just a snatch-and-grab to steal your phone, most assailants will tend to target an isolated individual as opposed to groups, even if it is a group of two people or a virtual group, such as someone talking on a phone, as it will be immediately obvious to the person on the other end of the line that something is wrong. While chatting with a friend to provide a virtual escort has its advantages, as it allows an active exchange of information, whether providing a daily update or discussing business operations, it has its limitations as well. Primarily, it doesn’t provide specific information regarding where you are or the type of hazard you’re facing, while potentially degrading your situational awareness as well. The benefit of having a friend as a virtual escort can be enhanced by loading your smart phone with an appropriate safety app, as the majority of these can also transmit your location and possible evidentiary information. There are many that have the capability of imitating the virtual escort function, or actually providing a real one on a hired basis via a monitoring service.
Depending on the size of your organization, it may even have already licensed some of these tools, so that they are running a host system on the organization’s servers and are directly connected to their organization’s security service or, in the case of Universities, to the campus police. Many of these apps also allow you to enter a list of your personal contacts, sometimes called ‘guardians’ and, if triggered, notify them of your location and need for assistance. The following are a list of several of the more well-known products along with a few current feature highlights, but remember that the number of apps and their various features is continually changing. These are only a fraction of the ones currently available. When selecting one, it might also be wise to consider the number of people using them. Some of these apps have over a million downloads on Google Play alone, while others may have less than a hundred. Of course, the number of downloads doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the app, but it might be a wise point to consider why an application’s download numbers are low. Another caveat to keep in mind is that, while many of these apps, or at least their base versions, are free, others might require a contract with a monitoring service to activate the more advanced features, or might only offer a limited subset of features in specific parts of the world. A final caveat to keep in mind is that, in many instances, these are marketed and promoted for the safety of women, particularly against the threat of sexual assault. While it is true that there are additional risk factors that can place a typical woman at more risk than a typical man, even if this is only that the average woman is smaller and not as strong as the average man, women are not the only ones at risk, and any man who ignores these applications because they aren’t considered macho, is a fool. (Besides, I’ve known enough petite instances of the female persuasion that I wouldn’t want to take on, even in a dark alley, to know that relying on averages can be a very risky proposition!
- bSafe Personal Safety App: This app currently appears to be among the more popular personal safety apps. It includes a number of free features that other apps class as premium ones.
- Companion Safety App: This is a free application available for both Android and iOS that has really been taking off, particularly on college campuses.
- Watch Over Me: Another free security app available for both Android and iOS devices, this application boasts a somewhat different set of features than the previous apps we’ve looked at.
- EmergenSee – Personal Safety: This app is also available for both Android and iOS devices, and includes both free and licensed versions.
- McAfee Personal Safety丨Family Locator: This free personal security app for Android devices takes a somewhat more simplified approach than some of the previous applications, but adds a few intriguing features as well.
- iGoSafely -Personal Safety App: This free personal security app for Android devices appears to be a more basic safety app with a more limited set of features.
While it may seem obvious, it is worth reiterating that these safety/security apps rely on your smart phone or tablets GPS chip for location information. As keeping this chip active does drain your battery more rapidly, and considering that your greatest need for these apps is probably at night, at the end of your use cycle, it is prudent to keep an eye on your battery charge indicator. Some of these apps include a feature to monitor it for you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do you any good to know that your battery is about to die, if you have no place to plug in a charger. It is therefore prudent to keep a portable battery-based charger available at all times, whether stuffed into your briefcase, backpack or belt pouch (with the required cable!). This might be something as rugged as the BRV-BANK UltraRugged Portable Backup Battery from Braven, featured in our 2015 holiday gift guide, or an inexpensive one picked up at your local electronics store. Just keep it with you and keep it charged!
Quick Reality Check
Just a word to the wise, no matter how well rated an application may be, it is extremely prudent to test it thoroughly on the devices you plan to use, both yours and your guardians. In reading through the various user reviews, many times you’ll find basically an inverted bell curve, with a lot of people loving the application and others hating it, with very few in-between. While fake responses to try and skew the curves might be responsible for part of this, I believe the major reason is due to a combination of hardware differences in the various phones and the tendency for cellular providers to ‘tweak’ the version of Android that they install on their phones. This can easily inject incompatibilities that become apparent only when applications attempt to execute a specific feature.
Sometimes all that is needed is to update a specific application library, in other cases, the only way to ‘fix’ the issue is for the creator of the app to develop and include a specific workaround in their code for the offending bug. For those up to the challenge, you might be able to resolve the issue by rooting and installing an Open Sourced version of Android that someone else has developed for the given phone. Without knowing what a particular manufacturer has done, this could easily add or remove features from your phone, or even brick it, so I’d recommend this approach with caution.
Discussions and comparison of these and other safety apps can be found on a number of blogs and news sites.1-4 However, it is important to keep in mind that these are not silver bullets that will shield you from all accidents or villainy. While quite useful for reducing risk, aiding peace of mind, and summoning help in an emergency, they are not a substitute for remaining alert to your surroundings or avoiding known risk locations. Situational awareness is a key factor in avoiding both accidents and potential attacks.5 It is for that reason, that I recommend that even if using one of the apps that will trigger an alarm if your headphones are unplugged, that you not actually be using the headphones. If the apps work as I suspect, you are better off buying some cheap ear buds, clipping off the buds themselves and either tying or clipping the bare cable end somewhere to your person. That way, if someone does grab your phone and run, the cable plug will be pulled out and the alarm triggered.
Somewhat complementary to these apps are various are a number of new pieces of wearable security technology.6 Many of these are designed into jewelry, but others are simply small and easily hidden away. The majority, when activated, will transmit your location, either directly or through a Bluetooth link with your phone, to an emergency response center and both start recording and transmitting any audio to the response center. As the devices do not include a speaker, so that they don’t attract attention to you, it is up to you to provide as much verbal information as you can so that responders know how to best deal with the situation. I suspect that as technology continues to develop, many of the available safety apps will be integrated with wearable technology, such as Bluetooth linked bracelets, watches, and rings.7
I suggest that in addition to investigating some of the available apps, to determine which ones best fit your needs and lifestyle, you also read Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear.8 Discussed in more detail in my “The Gift of Fear” blog, this book will help you tune out the irrational noise signal of fear that the media generates and learn to recognize situations where you should be afraid and how to avoid them.
By learning to recognize potentially hazardous situations, instead of being afraid all of the time, coupled with the use of the appropriate smart phone app, we can all lead safer, less stress filled lives. Note that I’m not saying that the above will prevent all bad things from happening, as there is nothing that can ensure that. However, they will reduce the stress from irrational fear and add a layer of protection against real risks, so that you can actually live and enjoy life!
- Cohen, M. & Cohen, J. Agent Safety Apps. Clareity Consulting (2015). http://clareity.com/agent-safety-apps
- Eldridge, A. Which Personal Safety App is the Best? Nerds On Call Computer Repair (2015). http://callnerds.com/which-personal-safety-app-is-the-best
- Tan, D. Top 5 Personal Safety Android Apps for Women. iPage Review Guide (2014). http://hostreviewguides.com/top-5-personal-safety-android-apps-women
- Harkins, D. My top 6 Personal Safety Apps for Real Estate Brokers (and others). LinkedIn Pulse (2015). www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-top-6-personal-safety-apps-real-estate-brokers-others-harkins
- Black, B. The Gift of Fear and other Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence [Book Review]. Imminent Threat Solutions Tactical (ITS Tactical) (2012). www.itstactical.com/intellicom/mindset/the-gift-of-fear-and-other-survival-signals-that-protect-us-from-violence
- Kosir, S. Personal Safety. Wearable Technologies (2015). www.wearable-technologies.com/2015/03/personal-safety
- Dopacio González, Z. Put a Ring on It. Wearable Technologies (2014). www.wearable-technologies.com/2014/04/put-a-ring-on-it
- De Becker, G. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence. (Delta, 1999). www.worldcat.org/oclc/036143575
John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.