FireChat – the technology for disaster relief?

How often have you been in a crowded place, eager to share information over chat or text about the great concert or sporting event you are witnessing? Or wanting to just tell your friend where to find you? And just when you need it, the network is jammed and you can’t get a byte across the airwaves. Try FireChat!

I came across the FireChat app a year ago and remember thinking that it would be great to have in a cricket stadium or any crowded event. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) that popular in India so it didn’t seem worth the effort to market it myself amongst my peer group. In the meanwhile FireChat has been hugely popular in disaster relief across the world and and at large events like protests and concerts.

The recent and ongoing Chennai rains bring out why we too need to get invested in technology like FireChat that already exists and can be a lifesaver in times of disaster and calamity.

What’s FireChat?

FireChat is a free messaging app that works without an internet connection or cell phone coverage. That’s right. Pioneered by Open Garden in 2013, the technology creates a software-based network, also known as a peer-to-peer wireless mesh network, among participating mobile devices. It does this by using the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios inside phones to allow users to connect directly to one another, without relying on a data plan and telecom operator. FireChat can transmit messages and images offline between devices that are within 200 feet of each other. All it needs is a few people using FireChat. This allows it to hop from one device to another and reach the recipient. So the more people use it, the bigger and faster the network becomes, unlike a cellular network which gets “congested”. You can send Public messages – visible to all or Private messages – which travel encrypted till they reach the final recipient. Apple’s iOS multipeer connectivity technology enables something like FireChat.


Quoting Open Garden – “People can use FireChat on an every day basis but also in situations of disaster when networks are destroyed to ask for help, find relatives or to receive updates about preparedness and relief. We know that timely information can save lives, especially if delivered over free networks.”*

Across countries, pro-democracy protesters, disaster relief organizations, leaders and artists are choosing FireChat to stay connected to their fans, friends and communities. It was used extensively during the visit of Pope Francis to Manila and also at Occupy Central in Hong Kong, both in 2014. Some artists have leveraged on this to live chat with their audience during a concert. It’s a great tool even when riding thru underground subways and trains going through areas of limited network.

Perhaps time more of us got familiar with this and started using it even when we have regular networks available.

During emergencies like the Chennai rains or Nepal earthquake, this may be of tremendous help to folks trapped in their homes, allowing them to find help outside and also for relief workers to keep connecting with each other when they are in nearby groups. Recently the Hike app also launched a similar feature making use of Wifi capability of phones.

FireChat by OpenGarden is a free mobile app for iOS and Android.

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