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New App Offers Emergency Alerts and Anonymity

The Manchester Police Department now uses a “hyper-local” geographic notification system to help keep citizens safe.

by / March 21, 2012
New Hampshire State Capitol Building, Flicker CC

A devastating pipeline explosion two years ago in San Bruno, Calif., outside of San Francisco, claimed the lives of eight people, injured dozens of others and destroyed 38 homes.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the local utility, recently agreed to pay more than $70 million in restitution to the city of San Bruno, earmarked for a nonprofit agency devoted to the community’s recovery. Nearly 100 civil lawsuits filed by victims are still outstanding.

Jim Bender, the CEO of Ping4, contends that this kind of devastation can be contained much faster with an effective emergency alert system in place.  And the implications could be far-reaching for many types of local, national and even international organizations charged with serving large populations.

The Nashua, N.H.-based company is working with local police departments to deploy its citizen alert system. Offered as a free smartphone app, the platform empowers jurisdictions to issue rich media alerts to warn citizens of impending dangers to their safety.

“We are pleased to be among the first public safety agencies in the country to offer this important and meaningful smartphone application for the safety and protection of our community,” said Manchester, N.H, Police Chief Dave Mara, in a prepared statement.

Many U.S. cities are adopting reverse notification systems as an effective means of expedited emergency notification. Others offer smartphone apps with alert capabilities that also provide quick links to emergency-related information and resources. Most alert systems to date, though, rely on existing citizen data, or ask for registration that requires disclosure of personal information.

But Ping4 allows users to remain anonymous, a fact that allays fears of those concerned about compromising their privacy by revealing personal information, including their 24/7 whereabouts, to a government organization.

“The beauty of Ping4 is the utility or the police department doesn’t need to know a single thing about you. They don’t have any information about you,” explained Bender, who asserts that the company has no way to trace app downloads to specific users.  

Law enforcement does, however, have the ability to issue an alert to all app users within a designated geographic area, which can be as small as a 10-by-10-foot elevator shaft, and as large as an entire continent. In Manchester, the police department recently sent out an alert to all users in the Mall of New Hampshire parking lot, informing them of a heightened risk of car theft to unlocked vehicles.

Rich media alerts issued with the company’s mobile messaging platform can include video, photos, audio and text, and can be created and issued in near real time. In extreme emergencies, the app boasts the ability to wake up a phone in sleeping mode with an audio alert, to ensure that users get crucial information.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch touted the app as helpful in meeting public safety objectives of state government. “By utilizing technology, we can continue to give law enforcement the tools they need to better protect the public and help keep New Hampshire the safest state in the nation,” he said in a prepared statement.

The police department in Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, was the first official rollout for Ping4. The company provided the technology at no charge to Manchester. Several other police departments, as well as a major local university, are currently conducting field trials.  The company sees implications for many other agency types as well, including traffic, weather, public utilities, homeland security and the state department. 

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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