Preparedness & Recovery

After Lafayette College Scare, Easton Officials Consider Best Way to Issue Emergency Alerts

The city is among several municipalities in the Lehigh Valley that use Nixle, an emergency alert system users can sign up for via email or with their cellphone to receive alerts about emergencies and other significant events.

by Christina Tatu, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) / June 14, 2018

(TNS) — Easton officials are developing protocols for how to best alert residents about emergencies after some community members complained that they should have been notified of a bomb scare at Lafayette College last month.

The city is among several municipalities in the Lehigh Valley that use Nixle, an emergency alert system users can sign up for via email or with their cell phone to receive alerts about emergencies and other significant events.

But last month city officials revealed that Nixle cost $4,500 per year and only 1,000 people from Easton had signed up for the alerts.

On Tuesday, city officials said they’ve spent the last several weeks since the incident at Lafayette developing a protocol with the police, fire and department of public works for posting alerts through the system.

They are also looking at other platforms to communicate with residents, not only about emergencies but about events like festivals, road closures, weather alerts and utilities information.

They have also put out a request for proposal seeking a company to develop a new social media strategy for the city that will reach as many residents as possible on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said Easton officials are also considering electronic signs that could display messages directly from the city.

There is already such a sign in the South Side at St. John and Berwick streets, Panto said.

City officials are considering an electronic sign for 13th Street or Butler Street in the West Ward and are also scoping out a location in College Hill.

As for emergency alerts via Nixle, residents can sign up by texting EASTONALERTS to 888777.

Police Chief Carl Scalzo said the police department plans to expand its communications policy so that any officer with the rank of lieutenant or above can post an alert through Nixle.

Previously, there were only two individuals within the department who were authorized to post alerts through the system.

The person who posts the alert will also be responsible for later posting an update when the event is over, Scalzo said.

Meanwhile, the fire department will take the lead in posting alerts about road closures, major fires and weather alerts.

Officials said they also recently worked out some kinks with the system. Before, users were receiving alerts from other municipalities that are also using the system, like Forks and Lower Saucon.

Last month, Panto defended the decision not to use Nixle to alert residents to the bomb scare at Lafayette, saying it could have created “mass hysteria” over a situation where officials never found a credible threat.

But city officials found the news quickly spread on social media, which led to the discussion about how to manage such information in the future — including how to get the word out to those who may not have internet access.

In a series of tweets beginning 9:45 p.m. May 5, Lafayette College asked students on campus to stay put and for those off campus to stay away while law enforcement agencies investigated a threat made on social media.

Someone claiming to be a male student posted a message on pastebin.com and Twitter in which he declared his allegiance to the Islamic State group and said he was orchestrating an attack on Lafayette’s campus.

Easton Police, along with security from Lafayette’s campus and even the FBI, became involved in the investigation. No credible threat was ever found and the investigation is ongoing.

ctatu@mcall.com

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