Installing an Electronic Town Crier

Is a child missing in your community? A criminal suspect on the run? Neighborhood meeting coming up? In a growing number of communities, local governments are beginning to realize the power of the PC and a few telephone lines to quickly -- and inexpensively -- disseminate vital information to their citizens.

With a click on a geographic information systems (GIS) map, a city can deliver a recorded message to all the telephone numbers in a given area. Or it can contact everyone in a targeted audience from a programmed list: city council members, firefighters or banks, for example. The hoped-for result: a dramatic increase in the number of eyes and ears involved in a community alert, an effective supplement to other emergency warning systems and an across-the-board uptick of involvement in civic life.

The Windows-based technology, which appeared on the scene a few years ago, has improved rapidly; good timing, considering the spreading interest in community policing. Now a four-line system can reach as many as 100 sites per hour with a one-minute bulletin. And one computer can handle up to 64 lines if an agency wants to go to such expense.

"Publicly, it's been very positive," said Cpl. Jeffrey Walden of the Hampton, Va., Police Department, which has had an automated call-out program in place for several months. "A lot of people feel as though they're informed, that they're part of the solution in solving crimes and locating people."

In Englewood, Colo., the city's Safety Services Department uses the technology to keep 360 neighborhood watch captains abreast of crime trends. And it came in handy during the past year when all firefighters in the Denver suburb had to be summoned to battle a blazing lumberyard.

Delray Beach, Fla., uses it to alert affected neighborhoods in the community of the need to boil water when utilities workers are digging in their area -- a frequent task and, therefore, a considerable time savings to city workers who would have to make the calls themselves. The city's neighborhood associations also publicize upcoming meetings. An area of the city hit hard by car thefts recently received crime-prevention tips each week.

The city of Hampton uses its system primarily as a community policing tool: a way to call a neighborhood to give descriptions of suspects, and requesting citizens to contact police if they see something significant. "This is probably one of the best innovations since police radio," Hampton Police Chief P.G. Minetti gushed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "If I were a criminal, I'd find somewhere else to commit a crime."

Two leading products on the market are CityWatch (www.citywatch.com) from Minnesota-based ATS, a division of Avtex Inc., in place now in 60 cities, and Reverse 911 (www.r911.com), from Sigma Micro Corp. of Indianapolis, which is in more than 40 locations. Both systems use a single PC, GIS mapping software and commercially available telephone databases.

For established call lists or already-defined geographic areas, such as a hurricane evacuation zone, the systems can be activated remotely over the telephone through password access. CityWatch features automated surveying components. Reverse 911 boasts message delivery for the hearing impaired. Both systems offer fax broadcasting.

Funds to purchase the high-tech telephone tools, which typically are priced from $20,000 to $40,000, have come from a variety of sources: Some cities have spent federal grant funds; others have solicited donations or paid through tax revenues.

CityWatch senior account executive Don Denman says its setups range from $17,000 for a four-line base system to $45,000. Reverse 911 systems typically run from $20,000 to $35,000 for communities with 50,000 to 100,000 people. In rare cases, packages have cost more than $100,000, according to Jim Jones, Sigma Micro Corp.' sales representative.

For the price, cities receive turnkey systems: hardware, software, training and technical support. An annual contract provides them with software and database updates and maintenance support. For example, Hampton, with a population of 140,000, pays $4,000 for its Reverse 911 maintenance contract, which includes one database update.

Do such systems live up to their billing? Cities appear happy to have an additional weapon in their communications arsenal and are pleased that with more information flowing out to the public, more information flows back into their offices. "It's incumbent on any city to come up with as many means of communication as they can to get the information out to the public," said Douglas Clark, Englewood's city manager .

Before the city of 30,000 purchased its system last year, "if we had information, we had to have officers out on the street going from door to door, or we'd send out fliers," said Trina Everhart, special services officer in Englewood's Safety Services Department. "It's much more cost-effective to do this. We really couldn't contact the number of people we can now."

The technology is limited only by the imagination of its users -- as well as a careful calculation of how much is too much information for a public that can sometimes feel pestered by telephone calls. Therefore, Englewood uses the system sparingly. "We wanted to preserve the importance of it as an effective public-safety tool, as opposed to bombarding people with phone calls," Clark said. "We were fearful if we sent too much material out, it would trivialize the importance of it. Perhaps people would ignore it."

Citizens who find the informational calls annoying can request that their numbers be removed from the database -- a simple process.

"We try to convince them that it's good to be in the database, that they will want to know if there is a chemical spill or a hurricane blowing up the coast," said Curtis Shaffer, director of plans analysis and emergency operations for Hampton. "Most of the time that works, but [sometimes] they're so strong-willed, they don't see the long-term benefit of being in the database."

Gail-Lee McDermott is one citizen who is enamored. "I think this is one of the best things they've thought of doing," said the Delray Beach resident. Her neighborhood association alerts residents of upcoming meetings through Delray's CityWatch program. Each new meeting seems to bring out a few more people who heard about -- or remembered -- the gathering because of the telephone reminders.

"It works for us," she said.

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla.

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