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Littleton, Colo., Offers Mobile Alert System for Citizens

Residents can now subscribe to a mobile app that notifies them of emergencies in their local areas.

by / October 2, 2012

If there’s an emergency in Littleton, Colo., nearby smartphone users might be the first people to know.

The Littleton Police Department is using a mobile notification system that instantly alerts subscribers of incidents happening in the city. Instead of broadcasting information to all users simultaneously, the app warns only those subscribers who are located in specifically defined locations about the event.

The “hyper local” technology, called ping4alerts!, went live in Littleton last month. Although the city already uses a 911 notification system— which works off a database of telephone numbers and addresses to deliver emergency notifications — Littleton Police Chief Heather Coogan said the service wasn’t thorough enough because it only reaches people who have registered their phones or are at home.

The new app enables law enforcement messages to reach community members who are working or traveling within the city through their mobile devices. In addition, while most alert systems rely on existing data or ask for registration, ping4 lets users remain anonymous when using the app. Users also can send anonymous tips to local law enforcement.

Coogan explained that having the system is vital because many people don’t have home phones any longer.

“One of the issues we often face with these alert systems is that you catch a lot of people you don’t need to tell and they fill your phone lines up,” Coogan said. “The beauty of ping4 is that we can [highlight] a corridor of traffic, a shopping center or a neighborhood. That was the piece for me.”

Ping4 is free and available for both Apple and Android smartphones. The Manchester, N.H., Police Department was the first local law enforcement agency to use the app when it debuted in March.

The Littleton Police Department signed a one-year contract to try the technology. Coogan didn’t have the cost numbers available, but she said the system was “reasonably priced” and that other police departments in Colorado were interested in subscribing to the app.

The app can alert users to events such as car accidents, natural disasters, dangerous weather, missing persons and local crimes that are in progress. Subscribers can also receive photos, audio voice messages and videos. In addition, ping4 awakens phones that are in sleep mode, so users are kept up-to-date with what is going on around them at all times.

Coogan said after observing the tornadoes and fires experienced in Colorado Springs earlier this year, she felt that her department really wasn’t communicating as well as it could. Littleton also is the home of Columbine High School — the site of one of the deadliest American school massacres in history. The April 20, 1999, shooting spree claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and injured two dozen. The two gunmen, who were students at the high school, claimed their own lives.

From hazardous material spills to school lockdowns, the app should give officers the flexibility to get out important messages more quickly.

For example, if an officer spots a robbery in progress and reports that to dispatch, the dispatcher can send out that information on ping4 immediately to keep nearby residents aware. So instead of hearing about the incident on social media sites or through news stations, residents and travelers can find out in real time what’s going on.

Jim Bender, chief executive officer for ping4alerts, said the messages sent using ping4 can be set to last for a designated time frame set by the agency sending the alert. This way, people coming into the area will receive the message as they approach the location.

Coogan also hopes the new technology will help the department circle back to citizens on what happened with various incidents.

Last year, a child went missing in Littleton who ultimately was found. But Coogan thought the department could have done a better job notifying and thanking everyone who helped during the process.

“Police departments need to use the technology that’s in the public’s hands to communicate,” Coogan said. “We’re behind the times. If we can’t communicate with them, they can’t be our partner.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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