Instant Alerts

Pop-up message service brings quick emergency warnings to desktop PCs.

by / June 27, 2003
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, 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 the citizens exactly what to do," Toney said.

One big fan of the Desktop Alert system is Lincoln Mayor Don Wesely. "With so many people using computers extensively, we can now reach them immediately when necessary," he said. "This is a welcome enhancement of our public safety."

As of late March, Lincoln/Lancaster had used the system to provide weather warnings and announce when the federal government raised its homeland security alert level from yellow to orange. With the approach of tornado season, the region now has a communications tool that's much more powerful than its traditional sirens.

"It allows us, in one shot, to get out and communicate massively to warn people, whatever the situation might be," Lowe said.

Contributing Writer Merrill Douglas is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
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