the business alert. Business alerts consist of e-mails targeted to businesses in a certain area or specific types of businesses. Residents or businesses can reply to alerts via e-mail using a prepopulated e-mail address. Reply messages are routed to a designated inbox at the local police or sheriff station.

In the case of a man who was writing his own medical prescriptions, CitizenObserver targeted pharmacies, emergency rooms and the like with e-mail, and helped solve the case -- one of about 20 solved as a result of CitizenObserver, according to company President Terry Halsch.

Information in that case, and most others, was specific and targeted to avoid becoming an ordinary occurrence to citizens.

"The rest of the community had no idea what was going on. They didn't need to," Halsch said. "That's one of the good things about it. It doesn't create alert fatigue. It sends out a note to just those who need to know."

Alerts also are sent via fax, cell phone or pager, depending on recipient preference. Businesses register in advance to receive alerts and give their preferences on how the information should be sent.

"Whether it's a Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target store or shopping chain, you have people forging checks or using credit card identity fraud," Stanek said. Law enforcement can now alert businesses to situations or trends.

Getting information out quickly is key to the program.

"Oddly enough, we used to do it through officers on the beat," Stanek said. "That was good. Then we did it by U.S. mail. That was OK. Then faxes came and that was better. Now with e-mail, one e-mail could go out to a thousand businesses in my community."

A citizen alert also can be sent to any resident who signs up, and school personnel will administer a school alert, which is in the works.

The program, which so far has seeped into 10 states and 140 jurisdictions, also involves citizens by developing neighborhood watch groups that work in conjunction with local police. About 50,000 businesses have signed up to receive the alerts, and CitizenObserver has developed about 1,000 neighborhood watch groups.

"Captains" are selected from each community group, and local law enforcement sends alerts to captains about things specific to the area, such as a burglar who habitually breaks into garages. There may be a description of the perpetrator and directions on what to do. Alerts also can be sent to all members of the community group.

"All of our stuff is two-way communication, so people are able to respond to those alerts and send information directly back to the department based on that alert," Halsch said.

The program has been particularly effective in missing children or child abduction cases. In one case, a man was cruising school zones and attempting to entice kids into his vehicle. The local police chief put out an alert, and the sheriff's department arrested the man shortly thereafter.

So far, the program has been free to all participating agencies, thanks to businesses that pay for local law enforcement agencies' participation at an average cost of $3,900 per year. Sponsors are happy to cover the costs and receive promotional considerations and links on the Web site, according to Halsch.

But the current funding arrangement could change as homeland security resources are disbursed to counties and the system becomes more sophisticated.

"We have worked with some departments that are submitting grants," Halsch said, adding that the program meets requirements of some technology grants.

CitizenObserver is an Internet and database driven system with the database stored at a different location than the Web site for security reasons. "It's database agnostic, so we're able to use a lot of different [technologies] and connect to a lot of different things," Halsch

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor