An Oak Harbor resident has created a smartphone app that provides information resources for homeowners in the event of a major natural disaster or other emergency.
Andrew Leith is the founder of Dwell Secure, an app that stores information on how to manage issues such as gas, electricity and electricity in a home. The app is not only useful after a natural disaster, but also for dealing with more common issues 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 courses. He explained to people that in the event of a major natural disaster, firefighters should respond to major problems first.
“We actually have pre-determined routes that we are going to travel; we are not allowed to stop for any reason,” he said.
Firefighters must first check infrastructure such as bridges, overpasses and water towers.
“The only way we are allowed to stop is if there is a great danger to life, something like an apartment building or a school collapse where there could be a lot, lots of people inside,” he said.
Whidbey Island has an earthquake-causing geologic fault that runs through the southern part of the island. An earthquake could fracture gas lines and pipes, and Leith found that many homeowners had no idea how to handle such a situation.
“Leaking gas is a very serious thing if it leaks inside your house, but it’s impossible for us to be everywhere,” he said. “There could be 1,000 houses with gas flowing but there could be collapsed schools, there could be buildings on fire.”
Leith asked his students if anyone knew how to shut off his gas meter in case of a leak.
“I taught four classes,” he said. “There was a person who knew where his gas meter was. No one knew how to turn off their gas meter.
He said about a dozen people knew where their water meter was, but only about three knew how to turn it off. It was the same with the electrical panels.
Leith said the app was born out of a need for education but also some guilt. He became a firefighter to help people, but in the event of a major natural disaster, the fire departments simply won’t have the resources to help everyone.
“The information is out there, but they don’t take the time to go after the information because they never needed it,” he said of the owners. “And when they need it, who knows if cellular networks will work.”
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 assumed the people of the area would be more self-sufficient.
One day he was talking to his neighbor who told him that although she grew up on the island, could grow any type of crop and ride bareback, she didn’t know how to hook up her generator in case of a power outage.
Leith also thought the app would be especially useful for a military town like Oak Harbor where a family member may be away for months at a time.
“Spouses would have more peace of mind knowing whoever stays here has all the information they need,” he said.
Leith and his wife decided to spend their savings to finance the project. He hired a software company in Bellevue to create the app, and nearly two years later, all the issues were finally resolved. The application is available for download at dwellsecure.app.
Dwell Secure allows users to take a satellite image of their property and mark gas meter, water meter and electrical panel locations. Users can upload photos of their counters, as well as instructional videos.
Leith said his wife took a video of him plugging in their generator and showing how to turn it on to restore power, so if the power goes out when Leith is at work, she knows exactly what to do.
A building inspector or other professional can also help users set up the app with all the relevant information.
“During a disaster, this information is stored in the cloud and on the device, so you don’t need internet access,” Leith said.
Gas, water and electricity functionality comes 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 quite common for firefighters to respond to things people could handle on their own, especially in an area like South Whidbey where many people are retired.
“It’s become the norm, which is good, but in the event 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 routinely responds to these types of calls as well. He said it was imperative that people know where their water and gas cuts are, especially those living on a rural island.
“In the event of a major disaster, it will take us days to reach some people,” he said.
Chief John Clark of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue said there are many things people can do proactively to prepare for an upcoming earthquake, such as shutting off utilities in advance.
“If you live in a single-family home, you need to know where those closures are, whether you’re renting or owning,” he said.
Landlords can use a retail version of the app to store information about as many properties as they own and then share that information with their tenants.
When people buy a house, they sometimes receive a binder with this type of information from a home inspector.
“We usually put it in the laundry room and then move it around to make room for other things and we lose it,” Leith said. “Hopefully in the future this will become standard with every home purchase so that everything is entered and it will be in your phone – all the information you need.”