Nebraska city sounds PC alarms

Lincoln supplements broadcast emergency alerts with targeted, computer-based service

Lincoln, Neb., Web site

As a supplement to radio and TV broadcasts of emergency alerts, Lincoln, Neb., soon will implement a PC-based service that would instantly alert residents of the city and Lancaster County about severe local weather conditions, state notifications of abducted children and national homeland security warnings.

"It allows us now — when they don't have the TV and radio on — to be able to get [alerts] when they have their desktops on," said Terry Lowe, systems project manager with the city's Information Services Division. "We see this as going to be a national model."

It's a much more effective way of alerting the public and first responders than just spamming them with e-mail, he added.

Within a week, Lowe said the public would be able to download the program from the city Web site. Once downloaded, the program will appear as an icon on a user's desktop or task manager.

For the past few months, the Information Services Division has been working with Texas-based Weather Solutions LLC to adapt its commercial Digital Information Network desktop application for the public sector.

He said the city has tested it to make sure the system is reliable, response times are fast and information is secure. Alerts are routed through the company's servers located in three sites, he added.

Similar to the company's commercial product, city and county residents can get immediate notifications from the National Weather Service, local forecasts and current weather conditions, and breaking news through InterLinc Alert, the name of the city/county system.

In addition, residents would receive state Amber Alerts about recently abducted children and teens; homeland security cautions, such as when the national threat level is raised; and local emergencies, such as a flash flood warnings, issued by designated public safety, emergency or health agencies.

When an alert is sent, a noise — like the loud "whooping" alarm heard on TV or radio when the Emergency Alert System is activated — would sound on a user's computer. That alarm would be followed by a pop-up screen explaining the type of emergency. Users would then be directed to other Web sites for additional information.

In the future, Lowe said the alert will be available on personal digital assistants, wireless phones and beepers.

A strong component of the system, Lowe said, is the ability to blast instant alerts to a targeted audience, such as school administrators or private-sector public safety coordinators. For example, if there's a lockdown following a school shooting, then the police or sheriff's department could immediately send an alert to a pre-defined group of administrators that would appear as a "crawler" — a text message that scrolls across a computer screen.

Protocols are in place for first responders, health officials and other government officials to send instant crawlers to specific groups or general pop-up warnings to the public depending on the type of emergency. For example, the fire department would send a notification if a toxic cloud is detected.

The city is working with security personnel at large companies to create a list of individuals to notify should there be a threat to businesses in the area or a particular office building, Lowe said.

The cost of the system would depend on a municipality's population. Based on its population of 225,000, Lincoln could pay about $20,000, Lowe estimated. The city is not paying any up-front costs. Annual maintenance fees could run about $3,000, although that fee hasn't been established yet, he added.

But Lowe said the cost is minimal compared with the benefit of notifying thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people to a possible emergency in a minute or less.

At least one other city has purchased the system, and Lowe has given a demonstration to the state government.

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