on a 28.8 [Kbps] dial-up connection, and it worked beautifully," Lowe said. This means the system can alert citizens even in rural areas that lack high-speed Internet service.

Severe weather warnings, Amber Alerts and homeland security status information come to the user from DIN's server, which tailors them for different customer groups. Users of the Lincoln/Lancaster system, for instance, receive National Weather Service (NWS) alerts for their region and Amber Alerts for Nebraska.

Agency Alerts

In addition, six local government agencies -- the Lincoln Police, the Sheriff's Department, Lincoln Fire and Rescue, the City-County Health Department, Emergency Services and the 911 Center -- can launch alerts of their own. Accessing an administrative screen on a secure Web site, an authorized employee of one of these organizations creates an alert, which DIN's server then makes available to the public.

As a tornado approaches the Lincoln/Lancaster area, the system will provide an NWS alert. When Emergency Services receives further details from local tornado spotters, that department could issue a warning as well, providing more specific information. "The Emergency Services manager could get onto the administration screen, pick the text he wants or free-form the text on the crawler, click a few icons, say 'I want this graphic to show up,' or 'I want this specific information about the county,' or whatever, and launch the alert right there," Lowe said.

To pull in alerts, software in the user's PC transmits "a 40-byte 'ping'" every few seconds, polling the server for new information, Lowe said.

The agencies also are developing lists of first responders who will receive instant alerts about events that threaten their constituents. "Within 60 seconds, we can have every principal's desk launch off in case there is something, God forbid, like a school shooting, and they need to do a lockdown," Lowe said. Along with school administrators, the city and county are targeting groups such as bank branch managers and safety coordinators in large offices, hoping to get them to participate in the system, he said.

Each user who downloads the software receives a unique identifier. To send messages to a select group, an agency creates a distribution list containing the IDs of the members of that group, Toney said. Only computers marked with those IDs will display those special alerts.

Wireless Warnings

Users also can receive emergency alerts on handheld computers with wireless modems and on cell phones, but without graphics and hypertext links. "We're sending alerts as e-mails right now," Lowe said. "We are going to be moving quickly to SMS [short message service] types of text messages in the near future."

For the commercial version of the service, media companies pay a fee based on their market size. Governments pay based on population. Lincoln/Lancaster, with about 225,000 residents, paid $20,000 for the software license, Lowe said. The city and county still were negotiating the annual maintenance fee, but he said he expected it to come to 15 percent to 20 percent of the purchase price.

Toney said several other communities are considering their own versions of the Desktop Alert service. In April, DIN promoted the system at Public Technology Inc.'s Congress of Public Technologists in Miami.

The company is working on two new features for the system. The "DIN Communicator" will allow individuals to send instant messages via a crawl at the bottom of the screen. "They're going to be able not only to send it peer-to-peer, but to set up their own distribution lists," Toney said, adding that users also could use this technology to swap files.

In the future, DIN will let users download broadcast-quality video. "For example, the city may want to have a piece of video that, when a tornado warning is issued, pops up and tells

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer