Crisis averted

The skies are dark and the air is eerily still. You’re driving down a deserted country road, heading north. Every single station on the radio comes in patchy, at best. Suddenly your smartphone lights up. You’ve received an alert that indicates a tornado has touched down about 40 miles ahead. A quick glace reveals a weather map with the funnel’s direction and a warning from the National Weather Service. You immediately hit the brakes and change course, avoiding the tornado’s path rather than driving into its eye.

When hazards present themselves, public safety officials can find it challenging to disseminate pertinent information to the public. Luckily, new technology urges us to consider a lot of “What ifs.” What if commuters traveling towards I-35W in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, were able to change routes and avoid the bridge collapse that claimed the lives of 13 people? This year on April 4, a gunman went on a rampage at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif., killing six students and a receptionist. What if others walking the campus that day had somehow received a real-time notification telling them not only of the active shooter, but his whereabouts, his description, and up-to-the-minute instructions?

What if we all were given an extra opportunity to avoid danger? Thanks to new software, including a large rumble in the field of smartphone technology, we may be able to access warnings like these and much more.

Planning for the unknown

The island of Key West in the Straits of Florida is about four miles long and two miles wide. The popular vacation hot spot is a mere 90 nautical miles to Havana, Cuba. Forty-two bridges connect Key West to the cluster of inland states. Once a fairly self-sufficient region with its own power generation, technological updates in the past 20 years have actually made the territory more dependent on the rest of the United States for things like water and power.

“If a bridge goes out, then we have to really scramble to get our contingencies ready to go,” says Craig Marson, Key West’s emergency management director. Because of the area’s location, population and exposure to ripping hurricanes, cooperation is essential to managing a thorough disaster response and implementing a successful evacuation. City planners and public safety personnel meet constantly to draw and re-draw plans, as well as collaborate with neighboring organizations. “We have a lot of cooperative work, whether it’s through a handshake, or establishing memorandums of understanding or memorandums of agreement with other partners,” says Marson, “Because we can become so potentially isolated, we rely on each other very heavily to develop plans and activate plans for emergency response.”

Police, fire and EMS teams in the area recently held a drill for a potential near-shore oil spill, similar to what might happen to the deep water horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. In attendance were NOAA, the National Marine Sanctuary, the Interior Department, Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, Weather Service, Coast Guard, and others.

In the event a hurricane hits or a bridge closes, Marson says they rely heavily on the city’s website and a cable television provider to get information to the public. They also have a contract with the private provider CodeRED ECN Emergency Communications Network, which gives city employees three methods of contact: a landline, a cell phone and text messaging. They’ve recently added a web-based component where employees can receive e-mail notifications, as well. The city employs approximately 400 to 600 people. With hurricane season picking up in June and July, Marson says they anticipate using the new program quite a bit in emergency hurricane drills, and even in preparation for the region’s famous entertainment draws like Fantasy Fest in October.

Official alerts to local phones

Another way to get the message out is to contact citizens directly. The company Ping4, now in its second year, has developed software to do just that. The intuitive program can notify people within a specific geographic range of an immediate, potentially threatening situation using rich media like maps, video, audio and images. The product is unique in that it can “wake up” or “ping” citizens’ phones. Police do not need to know anything about the phone carriers—who or where, exactly, they are—to issue an alert.

“It’s completely anonymous, [which] a lot of people like … because they don’t want to give their phone number or their e-mail to the police,” says Jim Bender, Ping4’s CEO. Bender adds it’s especially helpful in places with transient populations, like vacation or coastal communities, because there, “[police] really have no idea who’s visiting their town, and yet they’ve got an obligation to protect everybody.”

Imagine if emergency managers used Ping4 during Japan’s tsunami last February. Public officials with access to the software might have cordoned off the storm’s precise coordinates and sent the map, along with continual updates, to iPhone and Android users in the region.

“Once the tsunami hit, the power grids [were] down and all the roads [were] destroyed,” says Bender. “But police could communicate with people and say, ‘If you need a place to sleep you can go here; if you need warm clothing or food or water, go there. And if you need medicine, here’s where you go.’”

In the case of the Japanese disaster, a number of people were downwind of nuclear reactors and did not know they were in danger. “Police had no other way to contact them,” says Bender. “With this they could have drawn a box and said, if you’re … downwind of an unstable nuclear reactor you must go north immediately.”

The technology provides a way to communicate when traditional communication systems go down. Says Bender, “[When] there’s no radio, no TV, no nothing … there’s no newspaper tomorrow, this is a way you can communicate with people, and help keep them safe.”

Now imagine a rampant gunman on a college campus, only campus personnel, students, and area civilians are all receiving precise updates on where the shooter is and what’s happening, minute by minute. This type of information can answer a lot of anxious questions, leaving police and SWAT teams to better focus their attention on the task at hand. It might also keep more people out of harm’s way.

Crack team crime solvers

Technology that not only helps solve crime, but helps prevent crime, too, is a sound investment according to Det. Capt. Nick Willard of the Manchester (N.H.) Police Department. His agency recently acquired Ping4 to help prepare for storms, locate missing children and assist in burglary investigations, to name a few uses.

“We have a minor-league ballpark in our civic center. If people have this app on their phone they can help us locate, say, a missing 7 year old, which happens fairly often at these games. The parent takes the child to the bathroom, they turn around and the child’s gone. And then they come over to the officer and report that their child’s missing,” says Willard. Police can “ping” the child’s description and put a geofence around the stadium. Now people receiving the message can contact detectives via cell phone, or simply contact the department.

“Instead of the three officers who typically work the Fisher Cats baseball game looking for this child, you have potentially 6,000 fans in the stadium, too, assuming they have the app downloaded on their phone,” says Willard.

Last year 2,000 children were reported missing in the United States on an average day, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but only 167 Amber Alerts were issued. “One of the problems with Amber Alerts is that it can be difficult to get one, and by the time someone qualifies, the child can be long-gone and far away,” says Bender.

Manchester police use both Ping4 for alerts specific to a general area, and Nixle for e-mail notifications. In burglary cases detectives can download surveillance video from a local robbery and get it out to the public without having to wait for the news cycle and then becoming inundated with phone calls. Citizens must download the free app onto their phone. Willard says they encourage people to do so any time the department does community policing, or holds neighborhood watch groups and meetings.

Emergency cooperation saves

One method of notification does not nullify another if both are effective in keeping citizens out of harm’s way. Unlike just five years ago when a timely radio announcement was the only thing keeping a road commuter from barreling toward a downed bridge, there now exists other means to help us side-step dangerous situations and, in some cases, even help solve crimes.

Fast, detailed, real-time alerts for citizens and public safety can only help to increase our chances of survival the next time the unthinkable happens.