Water, canned goods, flashlights and an emergency radio are all staples of the traditional emergency plan inventory, but a new American Red Cross survey shows that more and more people are adding two surprising new tools to this list: social media and mobile apps.

The survey, which has been conducted annually for the past three years, found that 12 percent of Americans have used social media to exchange information during an emergency, disaster or severe weather event.

A little over one-tenth of the population seems like a small subset of people, but with nearly half of Americas mobile phone users now in possession of a smart phone (according to the most recent Nielsen statistics), social media and apps represent a new frontier in emergency preparedness and response.

Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are three of the most commonly used social networks. The word, "app" is short for "application," and refers to software programs that can be downloaded onto a computer, tablet or smartphone. Apps perform a variety of functions: they can help you balance your checkbook, find recipes, even turn your phone or computer into a portable sound machine.

A rapidly growing trend

Gloria Huang, social engagement specialist for the American Red Cross says that social media use in emergencies has been steadily growing for several years, and that this budding avenue of communication has serious promise.

For example, last year's survey indicated that 24 percent of people said they would make use of social tools to inform friends and family of their safety during an emergency. This year, that number jumped to 40 percent.

In a hurricane, the power may go out and phone lines may go down, but Huang points out that people may still be able to perform data activities on their phone. This means they could check in with their loved ones and get updated on important information about a disaster.

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The problem is that social media is not on the top of people's minds when they're coming up with an emergency plan. "People can't forget that it's a good resource, another way to access important information," Huang says.

Helpful additions to an existing plan

Huang suggests that people taking care of elderly loved ones consider adding a social media component to their emergency preparedness plan. "So many people are using social media as a way to communicate, including emergency agencies, the Red Cross, etc.," she says. "If we're putting all the information out there, it can be a good way to get official reports on what's going on in your area."

The key, says Huang, is picking the social media resources that work best for you and your loved one.

Twitter probably isn't a go-to resource for seniors and their caregivers, and a Facebook post is by no means a substitute for dialing 9-1-1. But, there are some simple (and free) downloadable tools that can make useful additions to an existing response plan:

  • Emergency (free): directly dials the numbers for 4 primary emergency services, including: police, firemen, medical and general. Also allows you to send an SMS text to request help that includes your current location.
  • First Aid by American Red Cross (free): offers treatment instructions for burns, bleeding, broken bones, etc.
  • Hurricane by American Red Cross (free): allows you to keep an eye on the weather conditions in your area and offers instructions on how to stay safe during a storm. Additional features include: a feature that turns your phone into a flashlight or emergency beacon, a directory of Red Cross shelters in your area, and a program that allows you to update your Facebook status, notifying others that you and your loved one are safe.

If you have a smart phone (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry), you can download these apps using a program that comes pre-installed on your phone. People with iPhones and Windows Phones should look for an icon labeled, "App Store." On Android phones this program is called "Android Market," while on the Blackberry it's identified as, "App World."

You can also use social media to get tips and advice from other people who've weathered the proverbial and literal storm of helping a senior during an emergency. If you have a specific question on how to help your loved one stay safe during a natural disaster, visit the AgingCare.com community forum and ask your fellow caregivers what they would suggest.