Whether the concern is terrorism or treacherous weather, communities are seeking better ways to communicate with residents during emergencies. In Lincoln, Neb., and surrounding Lancaster County, public safety organizations have a new tool to spread the word about possible danger.

Using a PC-based utility called InterLinc Desktop Alert, any resident with an Internet connection can receive quick notification of oncoming storms, missing children, health emergencies, hazardous chemical spills or a host of other critical situations. The system sends targeted alerts to specific groups, such as school administrators or corporate safety coordinators.

Terry Lowe, systems project manager at Lincoln's Information Services Division, got the idea for the Desktop Alert while watching television in Omaha. A local station invited viewers to download a personal computer application providing news and weather alerts in a pop-up box. "As soon as I saw it, I knew it had a lot of potential," Lowe recalled.

Officials in Lincoln/Lancaster had long used sirens to announce tornadoes, and they used phone and fax to contact first responders in emergencies. But to reach a wide audience with specific information, "We've never had a method other than spamming people with e-mail, which doesn't really get the job done," Lowe said. "We've never had the ability to launch an alert to citizens or the business community in a very timely way."

Lowe contacted Digital Information Network (DIN), the company that provided the PC alert system in Omaha. More than 75 television stations and a dozen newspapers and radio stations use DIN's technology to provide PC-based alerts, said Mark Toney, president of DIN, based in Dallas and Oklahoma City. They use the service to promote their brand names and generate revenue through ads they carry in the pop-up boxes.

When Lowe approached DIN, the company was already working on a version of its service for the public sector. Along with weather information, it included bulletins about child abductions transmitted through the Amber Alert system and notifications of the current terrorist threat level from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Lincoln/Lancaster and several other communities provided input to help shape the government-oriented service, Toney said.

Lincoln/Lancaster decided to become an alpha site for the service, helping DIN develop features and a pricing model to suit the needs of local governments, Lowe said.

Weather, Terror Levels and Billboards

InterLinc Desktop Alert started offering information to the public in Lincoln/Lancaster in March. To participate, a user visits a Web site to download a small software program. When launched, this application displays the current temperature in Lincoln, the current homeland security alert status, and links to weather forecasts, radar maps and local public agencies' Web sites. Instead of ads, the display box presents a rotating series of "billboards," which when clicked, link the user to pages offering crime maps, street closings, recent fire department runs and other local government information.

Users can reduce the size of the box to make the application run in the background. Whenever the system transmits an alert, the software sounds an alarm through the PC's speakers and the box pops up on the screen, giving information about the emergency. Users can click a link for further details. "Say the Health Department gives some type of alert. We can have more information available on our Web site to expand on what the alert is about," Lowe said.

As the situation progresses, the system displays updates in a "crawl" across the bottom of the computer screen.

Users must be connected to the Internet to receive the alerts, but they don't have to leave their browsers open. And they don't need a great deal of bandwidth. "I went home and loaded this on a Pentium 200,

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer