Who you gonna call? Everybody.

Emergency alert systems reach out to cell phones, PCs and other devices

The public address system for the 4077th unit on TV's "M*A*S*H" was enough to alert all personnel that wounded soldiers were arriving.

In the real world, a more far-reaching system is needed to alert people in an emergency. Some situations require that officials notify thousands of people quickly using computers, handheld devices, phones or loudspeakers.

New Orleans has launched a citywide emergency text communication system called NOLA Ready, said officials at Roam Secure Inc., of Arlington, Va., which provides technology for the system. The city is using the Roam Secure Alert Network to deliver messages to first responders, government officials and residents.

Residents can sign up to receive information about evacuations, levee breaches and power outages. During natural disasters and other emergencies, the city's Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety can deliver real-time reports and alerts to first responders via e-mail, cell phones and handheld devices.

The Air Force's Air Education and Training Command has deployed emergency notification systems at all of its bases. The program ties together systems that deliver emergency messages via computer networks, phones and a public address system called Giant Voice.

"The main need for this became apparent after" the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Master Sgt. Robert English, superintendent of command and control for the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base. "We need to be able to contact numerous people at a moment's notice if something transpires."

The system is used often to warn about approaching bad weather, and it sits ready to alert people on the base about other emergencies.

Previously, the PA system was the only way to quickly notify people at Vance Air Force Base about an emergency.

AtHoc Inc. of Burlingame, Calif., provided the network component that makes it possible to deliver emergency notifications to every information technology device on base, including laptop PCs, desktop PCs and personal digital assistants, said Guy Miasnik, AtHoc's president and chief executive officer. Other network-based tools, such as text messaging to mobile phones, can also be integrated into the system.

However, combining the three alerting capabilities ? PA system, network and phones ? can present a challenge.

"Once we delivered the network piece, the [Air] Education and Training Command and quite a few other customers recognized that they had a problem ? the three systems are siloed," Miasnik said. "Each provides notification in a different way, each has to be managed, and each has its own user directory."

To get around that problem, AtHoc introduced a layer that manages all three systems under one umbrella.

"With one click of a button, you can actually activate three different systems," Miasnik said.

An operator at a command post can log on to the system using a Web-based application and, based on his or her credentials, activate different systems and preprogrammed notifications related to specific emergencies, such as a tornado watch or chemical spill. Then the operator can select which devices or delivery media to use.

For example, Miasnik said, operators could ask, "Should I send this to desktops or phones or subset phones and also Giant Voice? With a few check boxes, that operator can designate which devices it should be published on."

A new version of the system being installed at Vance will also let people register to receive alerts at home.

With the network component, a pop-up window appears when an alert is issued. Users must click a button to acknowledge that they have read the message.

"If for some reason we need to know who was notified and who wasn't, we can go into the system and pull that information up," English said.

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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