Fairfax offering electronic alerts

A Northern Virginia city has implemented a messaging system that provides residents and employees with real-time electronic alerts during emergencies as well as offers reminders and notifications.

To subscribe to the free service, Fairfax residents must provide their name, address and phone numbers (www.ci.fairfax.va.us/emas) to receive a log-in and password. Users can then choose from 24 categories — including weather alerts, road closures, school closings, bid notifications and even dog tag reminders — and receive e-mails or text messages on cell phones or pagers.

Gail Bohan, the city's information technology director, said 150 people have already signed up for the system, which was unveiled June 11. She said the need for such a system was precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks and the communication problems that resulted in New York City.

An example of its use could be if a snowstorm blacked out the telephone lines in the city, then residents and employees could be alerted through alternative means, she said. The system could be used to alert parents to early school closings or to inform motorists about traffic jams. She said city department heads and supervisors could use it to contact their employees.

Shortly after Sept. 11, she said Dave Balroop, director of Fairfax-based Advanced Software Systems Inc.'s wireless mobile commerce division, contacted her about the company's newly developed Electronic Message Alert System (eMAS). All city departments were involved in the planning process, said Bohan, adding that some departments are responsible for alerts to certain groups, while the community relations department provides most other alerts.

By the end of the year, the country will have 150 million cell phone users, Balroop said. Although most people use them for voice rather than text messaging, 95 percent of cell phones can send and receive text messages, he said.

Balroop said eMAS is device-, carrier- and geography-independent, meaning messages can be sent to anywhere in the country. It can work with wireless pocket PCs, and voice messages can be sent to landline phones if a municipality has that module. The system also provides an audit trail, tracking every message sent out and to whom, he added.

To implement the system, all a municipality needs is Internet and e-mail access. "If you have these two ingredients, you're set to go," Balroop said. The system puts "all aspects of technology into one big basket."

Balroop said several other municipalities in the Northern Virginia area are interested in the service as well as a few federal agencies. The initial cost is $34,500, with an additional cost of $14,500 to customize the system. There is a yearly maintenance fee of $2,500, which includes upgrades, he said.

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