February 8, 2007 By Gina M. Scott
The water coming from the tap doesn't look right, or smell right. Is it time to worry, or can the pitchers be filled and poured?
When this situation happened in December of 2004, residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia, were able to log on to the city's Web site and instantly find out that the reason for the water discoloration was a broken water main. They found out where crews were working to fix the broken pipes, what streets were closed and what to do about drinking water.
The Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Alert System is a system designed for emergency situations. Whether it is inclement weather, natural disasters or man-made situations, critical information can easily flow from municipal leaders to citizens, calming panic and coordinating efforts of emergency personnel.
Serving an area of approximately 2,353 square miles -- about the size of Delaware with a population of approximately 360,000 -- the HRM Alert System was designed to work for both regional emergences and more local problems. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th forced the rerouting of air traffic, and the devastation of Hurricane Juan in 2003 required the same, it was obvious that some kind of information relay system was necessary.
By taking suggestions from the residents, as well as statistical information from the Web site of the time, Halifax was able to design what Richard Herritt, acting manager of E-Commerce and Web Services for Halifax, described as a system which "provides the ability to display an attention-drawing message on key pages of the Halifax.ca Web site." Along with the Web site alerts, Halifax has a call center that gives people "a concise, consolidated source of all emergency information." The 24/7 center is fed the same information as the Web site, from the same database.
What made the alert system work well when first used in the water main incident, was not so much the technological aspect, but compliance to the specific appropriate protocols and processes set out to make it work. Herritt explained that the code for the program is simplistic, with less than 300 lines of code and html to display the database and less than 700 lines of code and html to administer the data. It is the "efficient/timely updating of information when the system is active" which has made HRM Alert System a success. For example, even when there is no emergency situation, the system is updated regularly with date and time stamps, and out-of-date information is given new status which is "just as important as new information to maintaining the trust of the citizen in the timeliness and accuracy of the messages," explains Herritt.
It is important in emergency situations to have reliable information, so the HRM Alert System was designed to eliminate conflicting reports by being a single point of access. When an emergency occurs, the Alert System can be activated by anyone with the correct credentials from any computer with Internet access. This, combined with the call center, provides timely broadcasting of emergency information to the citizens.
By site tracking, Halifax is able to measure citizens' confidence in the Alert System. "With each subsequent event (of similar scope) we have recorded continuous increases in the usage of the messaging system by citizens and have received feedback from a number of different audiences (citizens, businesses, media) indicating the usefulness and growing expectations that these users now have on this system," explained Herritt. With this expanded confidence and use, the HRM Alert System is planned to expand to different pages on the Web site which are not "entry sites," such as transit schedule and event pages which may be bookmarked by users, so as to increase the amount of users exposed to emergency alerts.
So the next time a major snowstorm hits Halifax, or the water becomes contaminated, the residents will have all the information they need with the click of a mouse.
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