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Kate McBee
November 08, 2017

Emergency Management Weekly - Disaster Communication with Zello

Bill Moore, CEO, was interviewed about Zello by EM Weekly's Todd Devoe in November of 2017. Find out about Zello's history and how Zello is used in a crisis. 

Interview Transcript 

[BILL MOORE] Alexey Gavrilov is the one that got the company up and running, released the technology, up and running. He started in about 2007, looking for a better way to communicate with phones other than texting, and decided that radio-style communication was a pretty good fit with these smart devices. I came on the scene in 2011, and we founded what’s now called Zello, late that year. Alex and I worked together at a company called TuneIn Radio, that I founded, and I’m still on the board of that company, starting at about 2002. So, a long time, we’ve been working together a long time. But, you know, early on, I noticed he and his team were exceptional, so I was pretty excited to work with them again.

[TODD DEVOE] Wow, that’s kinda cool. So, your background is technology, and your partner saw an issue that had to be fixed, so you guys kind of went ahead and created the Zello app. So, what was your initial market for Zello? Like, who were you guys trying to go after?

[BILL MOORE] Yeah, so Zello, from the beginning, has had both a consumer and a business. The business is the revenue model. And consumer began more as a voiceover IP style communication. You know, more of a text-style communication, radio-style communication. But between a few contacts, or a channel, we’re the purpose utility. And evolved, particularly, in the… probably 3 years ago to what we call social radio. It’s more of a… and the listeners may appreciate, HAM radio, or CB radio experience, where it’s a group conversation. And often, it’s about the people that are in the group. Unlike those other technologies, these channels can be public, or they can be private, so you can have a password in there, encrypted. And so, you know, what’s changed is an emphasis just on pure communication utility to social media. And as I mentioned a minute ago, the business model remains organizations who need central administration. We call it Zello work. And so, they’re typically replacing two-way radio and rolling out mobile apps for operational use, y either driver dispatchers or teams in a variety of industries.

[TODD DEVOE] You have accessories on your website that you can get handheld stuff with it, and ear pieces, and all that kind of stuff. So, it does really make that handheld telephone into a real hand radio, right?

[BILL MOORE] Yeah, those are essential for us. We have encouraged these companies from early on, because you convert the experience from a phone app to more of a radio, where you have a really loud speaker mic, with a big fat red button on the side, and you squeeze it and talk; you can hear it over a loud engine, or traffic. The phone stays in your pocket, you don’t need to, you know, fumble with it. You have gloves on, you can touch on the glasses, and it’s really convenient to open the app, switching back and forth. So, the accessories take advantage of the, you know, the connectivity of these mobile devices and the power of the Zello app, but bringing it back to a real simple use case, with a big button and a great microphone and a really loud speaker.

[TODD DEVOE] I started using your app with my son, just to kind of, for lack of a better term, play around with it. Like, when we’re doing whatever, so we can just kind of do two-way communications that way. More of a… I don’t wanna say toy, but more for entertainment than for anything else. And then what really struck me was when we had the hurricane came in, and I got this e-mail from somebody saying, “Hey, we’re gonna start using the Zello app, this is the channel that we’re gonna use.” And we started monitoring the Cajun Navy and Texas Navy with the app, and they were able to coordinate hundreds of rescues, and save people’s lives, by being able to coordinate by using that app. And I thought that was super exciting, and this is why I really invited you to be on the show here. Because I didn’t even think about using it in the case of a disaster. Quick question: I know that text messages go through cell phones quicker than the voice does during disasters, like, such as here in California, earthquake is our big concern. And we tell people to go ahead and text, because you can still text when the voice is down. Does that work the same way with the Zello app?

[BILL MOORE] It’s true. One of the reasons Zello was so popular with Harvey, as there’s a group called the Cajun Navy, who have used Zello in prior emergencies, and especially in Louisiana, a year ago, there was a major flood, and they had great success. And one of the things they found was that Zello will work when few other applications are still functioning. Zello needs a connection. There was a bad rumor that Zello is a walkie-talkie. As its own radio, it wouldn’t work. You know, it would continue to work with zero data. That’s not true, it needs Wi-Fi or some kind of cell connection. But it will work on a marginal 2G connection. And, as I said, it works when other apps typically won’t, certainly will work after phone calls stop working. And it will work about as long as text messages will still work. It’s really efficient on the data use, and we have, over a long period of time, optimized it, so that it can be effective. Zello is especially popular outside of the United States, in places that have terrible networks.

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[TODD DEVOE] What’s the bandwidth on that? I mean, how many users can we really have on that app at any one time?

[BILL MOORE] Well, there are millions every day, they’re on the app. There’s over a hundred million registered users. And you can have thousands, tens of thousands of users on a channel at one time; now, obviously, you can’t have tens of thousands of people speaking. You know, they only have a few seconds each, you wouldn’t get all the way around.


[BILL MOORE] It would take days. But, so, but often in situations like these, I don’t know if you saw, in Harvey. More than Irma, but in both cases, there were channels with thousands of active users, where a handful of people are speaking, and most others are monitoring, because they’re interested, or because they need the information.


[BILL MOORE] So, it becomes a mix of a traditional broadcast radio information, but the audience can communicate back.

[TODD DEVOE] It’s like any two-way radio, it’s gonna be that only two people… or one person can really speak at a time, so, that kind of makes sense right there. Yeah, I did notice that, when I was monitoring the Cajun Navy, that there were people that… it was kind of interesting to see how they were trying to coordinate the way people are allowed to talk. They would, you know, ask questions and stuff, and tell people: hey, you know, stop talking. But to be honest with you, that happens with professional emergency responders talking over each other sometimes, too. So, that’s nothing that’s not unique to the app, for sure. Back to the questions. So, for instance, in Orange County, California, we have 3.5 million people. If everybody was on that app during the earthquake, would it be able to handle that bandwidth, of everybody kind of communicating with their families associated with that?

[BILL MOORE] Oh, easily, yes. Yeah. As I mentioned, there’s a hundred million registered users, and there’s millions of people on. And you know, that varies, is it 2 million, or 10 million, or you know, 15 million. But in times of crisis, it goes up.


[BILL MOORE] I mentioned that Zello works well in places with poor networks, and it’s been important in crisis before. So, we’re pretty excited over the past couple of weeks, it’s been a number one overall app in the United States. But it was also the number one overall app in Turkey, and in Egypt, in Venezuela, and Ukraine. They’re driven by, you know, political crisis they’ve had. But in those countries, too, there would be millions of people who relied on Zello for critical communication. And it did help them just fine.

[TODD DEVOE] Say we wanna do a secure line, how does that work?

[BILL MOORE] Yeah, there are a couple layers to that. If you have a public channel, when you’re speaking on that channel, others on that channel can hear you. And so, there was a little confusion about that. Radio-style, right? If you have a radio, and you’re on a channel, you can hear it. Even if the transmission is encrypted, which is always is with Zello, in the end, with the 5, 12 bit key, and you know, military-grade encryptions. And because of some of the Ukraine-Russian, for example, conflict, it’s a hard insurance that we withstood. Lots of very innovative attempts to compromise and break the Zello service. But it’s secure. And a minute ago, you made the point that, you know radio-style communication requires that people, you know, cooperate and work together. Zello adds some features that you wouldn’t find in a radio. Like, you can block somebody. And channel types that come in handy, like only… you know, only moderators can talk. Or you know, you can only speak to moderators until they’ve trusted you.


[BILL MOORE] And one of my goals in reaching your audience would be to, say, we would really… Zello really wants to work with these responder organizations to help us in basic information, because one of the things that we saw happen in both these past two hurricanes was a rush of people using the app, and setting themselves up as dispatchers, you know, without having… Zello is easy to use, but without knowing some basics, like I said, you can block people, and you can not allow them to talk until they’ve been trusted. Or you can have a channel that has a password, and there are ways to share that channel with the individual people that need it. So, relative to radios, you have a lot more flexibility in the communication structure.

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[TODD DEVOE] I see a really good use of this app with CERT-type teams, or American Red Cross-type teams. I know that Team Rubicon started using the app down in Harvey. To use commercial radio, number one, you need FCC license. And two, it becomes really expensive to buy those devices. But most people, nowadays, has a smart phone, so it’s just a quick download of the app, and a little bit of training, and they’re up and running in your group. How would you… how do you plan on reaching out to groups like that, to use it for emergency disaster-type communication? Because I really think it’s a really good use of this app.

[BILL MOORE] Your audience probably includes some of those people, and I would encourage them to contact Zello info at It’s a great place to start. But we’ve been reaching out, and in fact, have had discussions over the past week with large companies like Twitter, to better understand how they, with a more mature organizations, have been able to develop relationships with the organizations, and to have policies in place, and to be ready when a crisis occurs, to be more effective. You know, what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. So, we’re early in that. I mentioned, it’s been popular in crisis before. In general, that’s been outside of the United States, and often, it’s a population who specifically does not want the government to “help.”


[BILL MOORE] What we see here, of course, it’s a much happier situation, where the coordination between the… so, for the example, the Cajun Navy, or Texas Search and Rescue, it’s another wonderful crew. And Texas Search and Rescue it’s a long-standing organization, that has ongoing training and coordinates volunteer efforts. So, they have established relationships with different authorities and ways to cooperate with them to make sure that they’re helping and augmenting official response teams, rather than complicating it and making it worse.


[BILL MOORE] And so, Zello, as a company, hasn’t had much of that. We’d like to have more, where we can help amplify what they’re trying to accomplish. And we did some of that with Harvey and Irma, where individual volunteer rescuers would show up and learn they’d need to be on a Zello channel, get on a Zello channel, and then we’ve had probably 50 times the normal inbound consumer communication, often from people confusing Zello with the organizations they need to work with. You know, where we can help, help them get the right information, put them in the right place. So, I know some of the organizations have approached Zello. Crisis or not, Zello is often popular with first responder-type organizations, in an informal way. Where they’ll have, you know, the radio, that the department is giving them. And also have Zello on their smart device, and they use Zello “on the side”, because it’s secure, and because they can communicate with just the groups of people they need to. But we’d love to have better organizations. Especially where we’ve had some problems with validating and verifying organizations’ claims. So, you know, we assess the organizations, the claims or if it’s just a hoax.

[TODD DEVOE] That’s a good point there. How do you verify that?

[BILL MOORE] The good and the bad about Zello is included, it’s organic. And so, the best, most trustworthy continent channels tend to emerge at the top. But sometimes, there’s a little friction, from when they start. You know, when the bad stuff is filtered out. In the same way, you know, a doctored photo of a hurricane hitting the coast put on Twitter is gonna cause disturb, but pretty quickly, people are gonna say, “Wait, that’s not… that’s not right.” And they’re gonna ignore it. But what we can do is allow organizations to validate who they say they are, and we can confirm through, for example, you know, their organization email, that this really is a representative of the organization. But we don’t… Zello doesn’t have a volume process for that right now, and we’re caught a little flat-footed, needing to have done a better job. Not so much with Harvey. I think there… I don’t wanna say the stakes are higher, but it was much more of a rescue. And so, we didn’t see much bad behavior, so it was totally satisfying, and it worked organically, there weren’t many barriers. For the scale of use, there were very few problems. I noticed in my own listening, Irma had more of the bad behavior, as a percentage of (inaudible) going on. More (inaudible) time, and you know, more people on the radio, you know, just stirring it up. Where, I think we could have helped more by making sure that the moderators were… you know, we knew who they were. We can also help by moving channels to the top of a trending list. We mostly left that alone, but you know, but to make it easier, to make sure that the search algorithms are gonna show the organizations that are real versus, you know, some imitator, blocking and removing the imitators, which is a standard policy. You can’t impersonate another person or organization, it’ll be removed. So, there’s a whole set of mechanisms, but you know, we need to get better and that.

[TODD DEVOE] And to be fair, I mean, Facebook and Twitter, and all the other ones, have always had problems with dummy sites or people masquerading themselves as an organization, and hijacking names and stuff like that. So, you know, it’s not a unique problem to your organization. So, that’s just to kind of clarify that with everybody.

[BILL MOORE] You know, two comments here. One is, the problem is harder, in some ways, with voice; because it’s live, that’s one of the things that makes it, you know, so compelling. And so, somebody can get on, shout something, create a disturbance, get out, and the damage is done. But the other side of it, though, is one of the reasons voice is so powerful, whether it’s through radio or Zello, is it’s authentic. You can’t fake your voice. So, you know, in a way, you could doctor that photo of the coastline; you’re not gonna doctor the voice of somebody. And people can fake, but very quickly, it’s pretty obvious, you know, what’s real and what’s not.

[TODD DEVOE] I’m excited about your app and the way it was used, and the potential that’s there for everybody. This is one of the takeaways that I’m gonna use with my organization, and have it used for volunteers, and also some of our other communication issues that we have. Because it seems like you could fill that void, where we don’t have to go and buy the expensive radio. I think that’s kind of a cool… the cool concept. Do you guys have, like, enterprise programs or something? For paid customers? Or is everything completely just free through the app? How does that work for you guys?

[BILL MOORE] There is a service that’s called Zello Work, that’s paid, $6 per user per month. And the main distinction between it and the consumer product, they’re a handful. But it’s designed for organizations who need central administration. And we ended up donating that to quite a number of volunteer organizations, where that’s what they wanted. Where the consumer of Zello is great where you want a big influx of consumers, there’s no barriers. Go get the app, get on a channel, you know, communicate with me. If it’s a closed environment, that is, you’re managing the volunteers’ inner working, and you don’t want people popping on your channel. So, depending on the size, you can accomplish that with, you know, with the free consumer Zello. But if you have more than 30 people or so, organizations, and where the people are more stable. Organizations often require central administration, like with Gmail, right? You have a company Gmail system, where there’s an administrator who defines, you know, the names of the groups, and the names of the contacts. And with Zello, who can communicate with whom. And that’s perfect for a variety of non-profit organizations. So, we have non-profit pricing, I mentioned a minute ago. You know, for these emergency situations, it was just free for a limited time; but it makes a ton of sense. We have some very large non-profit organizations, I’m thinking of some in South America, who are responsible for search and rescue over the mountains. And so, you know, they’ll have hundreds of, you know, of users spread across the country that use Zello. And then the more traditional commercial sense, you know, (inaudible) has 13,000 drivers that use it every day. It’s in all of the Restoration Hardware retail stores. It’s in almost all of the major hotel property lines. You know, you’ll go into a hotel, you’ll see people using Zello instead of radio. So, that’s our revenue model, as a company. And the consumer app is free, without any ads, we don’t sell data.


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[TODD DEVOE] One of the things that just popped to my head is that, even with HAM radio, obviously, with the 800mHz radio that we use in my state, at least in my county; we still need to be within line of sight of the repeater to be able to talk, effectively. And there are some serious dead zones with radios, right? Same thing with (inaudible), I suppose. But with radio, specifically, we had to go and test them all the time, and to put a lot of money into it. With Zello, you can be in New York, and you can still communicate with somebody on the app in California pretty effectively. So, in that aspect of it, it’s a little bit more robust than even your high-end radios. Am I wrong in that?

[BILL MOORE] No, you’re absolutely right. It would work in the basement, cause you have Wi-Fi down there, and the radio maybe doesn’t work. I wonder if there’s a study, because one of the concerns of our organizations in using Zello versus a radio, as well, you know, the radio is reliable. But these cell networks are pretty reliable, and I wanted to go look, you know, the FCC produces counts of how many cell towers per town and counties, you know, through these emergencies. But the nature of that cell communication, where you’re not dependent on each single tower, right?


[BILL MOORE] A mesh (inaudible) network. And they have generators. And over the past 10 years, especially, they’ve learned, you know, make sure the antennas aren’t gonna get flooded. And the phone companies can bring in temporary cell coverage. The end result is a highly reliable means of communication. And I would expect, for commercial organizations for sure, more reliable than what they see with radio. Because there’s no single point of failure, and there’s… you know, billions of dollars of infrastructure that are being managed by companies, who are pretty good at keeping it up.

[TODD DEVOE] We practice radio failure here. We’ve had it happen. The other end of it too, is that you’re right. When we use them in an emergency, they’re called cows, or cell on wheels. And the cell companies are really aggressive on getting those out to the affected areas and getting cell coverage back up. I remember one disaster, a fire that I responded to, they lost a cell for a period of maybe half a day. Maybe not even that long. And they had cows all over the place, and the cell was back up working fine. And then, some places, better than the 800mHz radio. So, I do see cell carriers working hard on that. And then also, our first net, and the nodes that a lot of cities are putting up around for free cell, or free Wi-Fi for people. That would also help out as well, because most smartphones will work on Wi-Fi as well as the cell. So, you can go into areas that have the free Wi-Fi that’s up throughout cities and still communicate with people. This is a really exciting app, and like I said, it started for me, more so, just to communicate with my son on busy days than it was to do anything in emergency response. But this really opened my eyes to it, so I’m really… first of all, thank you guys for having this service. I don’t know if anybody has ever thanked you for a commercial service before, but I am. Because I think that’s a really cool product.

[BILL MOORE] Well, thank you. You know, one of the… I maybe think that the range advantage of a Zello-style alternative, we’ve had some interviews with teams of dispatchers that have come together for Harvey, and I was pretty surprised to learn that half of them were not from the Houston area. You know, they had heard about this, for example, in New Jersey. And they… you know, they bring up maps, and they’re mispronouncing Beaumont as “Beumont”. You know, so if you listen, you can hear, “Ok, you’re probably not from here.” You know, how effective that advantage can be, where you don’t have to be within radio range, you can be anywhere in the world and help out, and communicate.

[TODD DEVOE] If somebody wanted to get a hold of your company to talk about Zello for Work, or if you’re a non-profit organization, to work with you guys. How would they get a hold of you?

[BILL MOORE] Sure. is probably the fastest way, or And one of the things I didn’t mention is Zello partners make two-way radio gateways. So we have different (inaudible) channels, pretty inexpensive, you know? $300, and you can connect a two-way radio channel with a donor radio to a Zello channel. So, that’s pretty popular with organizations that will mix the two technologies.


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[TODD DEVOE] That’s kinda cool. That’s kinda really cool.

[BILL MOORE] Yeah, so you’re communicating… you know, everybody else is… you know, maybe the manager is on vacation and using Zello, and there are great applications, you know? There are miners a thousand feet below the earth, and they have their special radio wire mine system, that they’re actually communicating on, for example.

[TODD DEVOE] Wow! Yeah, I mean, this technology is just really exciting. So, what’s you future here, what’s the growth for you guys?

[BILL MOORE] Yea, sure. Well, we have a pair of Aces that we’re, you know, gently splitting. One is consumer social radio, and it’s a massive market opportunity, because our voice is how we most naturally communicate. There really hasn’t been any other successful media around live voice. Many have tried. And Zello has the critical mass to make that happen. And there’s really some very difficult problems I didn’t go into around moderation, and you know, reputation and that sort of thing. So, that’s one side. And than Zello Work is a pretty simple value proposition. It replaces two-way radio, or (inaudible) you’ve got from your carrier. It’s less expensive, it’s easier to use, it works in more places. And that’s typically being deploys as organizations are rolling out other apps, and they say, “Why are we (inaudible) these extra devices for radio-style communication?” But the heart of the value there is the same as the consumer side. There is no better alternative for handling exceptions or for solving problems, or for developing trust or relationships, than live voice. And that’s been squeezed out so much out of the technology we’re used to, where you’re typing and reading, and so it’s pretty easy to see why, you know, people who use Zello have an experience like (inaudible), which is: hey, this is fun! As, you know, when you were a kid and you’re playing with walkie-talkies. And they keep using it, cause it’s not just fun, it’s a pretty effective way. In the same way radios are the core communication for so many organizations, that’s not gonna change. But the technology that it’s (inaudible) on is, and so, Zello intends to be that company.

[TODD DEVOE] Ok, so, here’s the toughest question of the day. Are you ready for it?


[TODD DEVOE] Ok. So, what book would you recommend to somebody who is interested in emergency response, and/or leadership, and in this case, communication?

[BILL MOORE] You know, this is a classic, but I don’t know how closely related it is to your guidelines there. But Viktor Frankl’s “A Man’s Search for Meaning” is just a great book for life. And I’m sure (inaudible) people haven’t read it. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but he’s in that concentration thinking. You know, the holocaust, it’s a fabulous book. So, that’s the one that comes to mind. And if you haven’t read it, everybody should.

[TODD DEVOE] Well, sir, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk to us. And I’m definitely gonna… anybody out there, who hadn’t listened to the Cajun Navy or to the Texas Navy, when this was occurring, you need to look at this app and check it out, and download it. Like, if you just wanna play with it, you know, have your kids play with it, and you guys can always communicate. Those of us at emergency management, we know that multiple redundancies… I think that’s a redundant, right? So, redundancies are really important to have, and so, like I said, this is really great for making a family radio when you go to Disneyland, so you don’t have to make cell phone calls, and stuff like that. It’s just, in general, fun for that, and now we can see the application for emergency use as well. Sir, is there anything else you’d like to add before we cut out of here?

[BILL MOORE] Well, we’d love to help your audiences, that are important to us, whether it’s free or paid, please contact Zello. And Todd, thank you very much for having me on today, I really enjoyed it.