An Oak Harbor resident has created a smartphone app that provides informational resources for homeowners in the case of a large natural disaster or other emergency.
Andrew Leith is the founder of Dwell Secure, an app that stores information on how to manage things like gas, power and electrical issues in a home. The app is not only useful for the aftermath of a natural disaster, but to deal with more common things such as water leaks and power outages.
Leith lives in Oak Harbor and works as a firefighter in Shoreline. He said the idea for the app came from his experience teaching disaster preparedness classes. He would explain to people that in case of a large natural disaster, the fire department would have to respond to major problems first.
“We actually have predetermined routes that we’re going to drive; we’re not allowed to stop for any reason,” he said.
Firefighters first have to check on infrastructure such as bridges, overpasses and water towers.
“The only way we’re allowed to stop is if there’s a big life hazard, something like an apartment building or a school collapse where there could be many, many people inside,” he said.
Whidbey Island has an earthquake-causing geologic fault that passes through the southern part of the island. An earthquake could fracture gas lines and pipes and Leith discovered that many homeowners have no idea how to handle such a situation.
“Gas flowing is a very serious thing if it’s flowing inside your house, but it’s impossible for us to be everywhere,” he said. “There could be 1,000 homes with gas flowing but there could be schools collapsed, there could be buildings on fire.”
Leith would ask his students if anyone knew how to shut off their gas meter in case of a leak.
“I taught four classes,” he said. “There was one person that knew where their gas meter was. Nobody knew how to shut off their gas meter.”
He said about a dozen people knew where their water meter was, but only about three knew how to shut it off. It was the same thing with electric panels.
Leith said the app grew from a need for education but also out of some guilt. He became a firefighter to help people, but in the case of a large natural disaster, fire departments simply won’t have the resources to help everyone.
“The information’s out there but they don’t take the time to go find the information because they’ve never needed it,” he said of homeowners. “And when they do need it, who knows if the cell networks are going to be working.”
Leith thought an app would be the perfect solution, but he quickly decided he couldn’t afford to create one. He had no experience in software development. After moving to Whidbey Island, he guessed people in the area would be more self-reliant.
One day he was speaking to his neighbor who said even though she grew up on the island, could grow any type of crop and ride a horse bareback, she had no idea how to hook up her generator when the power went out.
Leith also thought the app would be particularly useful for a military town such as Oak Harbor where one member of the family can be gone for months at a time.
“Spouses would rest easier knowing whoever’s left here had all the information they needed,” he said.
Leith and his wife decided to spend their savings to fund the project. He hired a software company in Bellevue to create the app and, nearly two years later, all of the kinks have finally been worked out. The app is available for download at dwellsecure.app.
Dwell Secure allows users to take a satellite image of their property and mark the locations of the gas meter, water meter and electric panel. Users can upload photos of their meters, as well as instructional videos.
Leith said his wife took a video of him plugging in their generator and demonstrating how to turn it on to restore power, so if the electricity goes out when Leith is at work, she knows exactly what to do.
A home inspector or other professional can also help users set up the app with all of the appropriate information.
“During a disaster, that information is stored in the cloud and on the device so you don’t need internet access,” Leith said.
The gas, water, and electric features come with the free version of the app. There are two paid versions of the app that include the ability to set reminders for things like changing water filters and smoke detector batteries and storing information for up to three properties.
According to Deputy Chief Terry Ney of South Whidbey Fire/EMS, it’s pretty common for firefighters to respond to things people could handle themselves, especially in an area like South Whidbey where many people are retired.
“That has become the norm, which is fine, but in case of a major disaster, we have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have the resources to respond,’” Ney said.
Chief Ray Merrill said the Oak Harbor Fire Department also commonly responds to those types of calls. He said it is imperative for people to know where their water and gas shut-offs are located, especially living on a rural island.
“In the case of a major disaster, it’s going to take us days to get to some folks,” he said.
Chief John Clark of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue said there are a lot of things people can do proactively to prepare for a coming earthquake, such as shutting off utilities beforehand.
“If you live in a single family home, you should know where those shut-offs are, whether you’re renting or whether you own,” he said.
Landlords can use a commercial version of the app to store information for as many properties as they own, then share that information with their tenants.
When people buy homes, they sometimes receive a binder with this type of information from a home inspector.
“We usually put it in the laundry room and then we move it to make room for other things and we lose it,” Leith said. “I’m hoping in the future, this becomes standard with every home purchase so everything gets entered and it’ll be in your phone — all the information you need.”