- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2012

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - When a powerful blizzard ripped through North Dakota last winter, hundreds of drivers were stranded as white-out conditions shuttered interstates spanning the state. Snow whipped up by wind marred the lines between pavement and grassy drop-offs, leaving some scared motorists unsure what to do.

Two local software developers figured they could help.

Bob Bertsch, an employee with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, and Jake Joraanstad, an NDSU computer engineering major, had just finished developing an app to help residents during floods when the blizzard hit in March, convincing them to shift their attention to winter disasters.

Winter Survival Kit was born. The free program, available for iPhones and Android smartphones, is both a primer to help motorists prepare for winter driving and a beacon when things go badly.

It can pinpoint a motorist’s location, call 911, notify friends and family, and monitor how long the gas will hold out. The app also gives potentially life-saving alerts when users tap a big red button on its simple home screen that reads, “I’m Stranded!” Among the advice: stay with your vehicle and keep the tailpipe clear of snow, since a backup can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It’s our sincere hope that no one ever has to use it,” said Bertsch, an NDSU Extension Service web technology specialist who led the team that developed the app. “But if one person does have to use it and it keeps them in their car or keeps them from succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning, then it is definitely worth the time and effort that was spent on the app.”

The app also helps drivers prepare for bad weather by inputting phone and policy numbers for insurance and roadside assistance, and designated emergency contacts. And it gives guidance on putting together a physical survival kit to keep in vehicles in case of emergencies.

“Any tools developed which arm people with information that will help keep them safe is of value,” North Dakota Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong said.

The app does have limitations. Joraanstad said some especially rural areas of the country _ particularly in the Great Plains _ have shoddy cellphone coverage that could impede some features such as GPS. At that point the app would tell users that their location couldn’t be pinpointed and instruct them to call 911.

Still, the app has emergency numbers handy, allowing users to send text messages for help. Text messages often can be sent by weaker signals than are needed for clear phone calls. And the app would give emergency advice on braving the elements _ even telling users how to use parts of a vehicle to keep warm.

The Midwest hasn’t seen much heavy snowfall in the last few months, so the app’s developers haven’t heard of any success _ or horror _ stories yet. But they’re convinced that when the time comes, their app will help.

“This app can literally save someone’s life. We take great pride in that,” said Joraanstad, the 22-year-old chief operating officer for Myriad Devices, a startup company in NDSU’s research and technology park that produced the app.

Bertsch, Joraanstad and two colleagues who teach at NDSU have become experts in disaster apps. Last year they developed a program to help residents deal with flooding that has overwhelmed North Dakota in the last few years. The H2O app provides news feeds, river levels, road closure maps and other information.

Winter Survival Kit, which works in the U.S. and Canada, joins several apps from other developers that were designed to help smartphone users in a bind, such as Help I Crashed My Car, Emergency Radio, iMapWeather Radio, iTriage, Close Call and pMonitor. As of this week, there didn’t appear to be other winter survival-specific apps in either iTunes’ or Android’s app stores.

“I think we hit a particular niche,” Bertsch said.

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