The Future Of Emergency Communications

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Back in December 2009, when MyVeronaNJ.com was just getting started and setting up its Facebook and Twitter feeds, we discovered something strange: The Verona Police Department was testing out a Twitter-like service to send messages to cell phones. The test never went anywhere until a freak October snowstorm made it clear that Verona needed some new ways to communicate in emergencies. On Tuesday, the Verona Police formally activated the Nixle Community Information Service, as the cell messaging service is called. By the end of Wednesday, it already had 300 subscribers in town.

This is not to say that we had a communications failure in Verona. The old-fashioned fog horn that calls our volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad to action worked spectacularly well, well into the night. But as Board of Education President John Quattrocchi noted at Tuesday’s board meeting, every large emergency has its communications lessons. In the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was about the vulnerability of  first responder radios and then-nascent cell phone communications. In our snowstorm, it has been that residents were actively using their cell phones to search for and communicate information about trouble and recovery efforts.

Before the storm, the BOE had the only notification system designed to work with cell phones. Called Global Connect, it was a quantum leap over the land-line phone chains that used to get the word out about emergencies. Parents could ask to get messages from the school by e-mail or by voice messages to their land line or cell phones. It has performed admirably in its first year of service, except for one thing: If you didn’t have kids in the public school system–the situation of about 30% of Verona residents–you couldn’t use Global Connect. There was simply no way to enter your information into the system. Global Connect was also somewhat vulnerable. Since it functions off the Internet-based phone system that the school district uses, when the Internet went out at the BOE office in Verona High School, Global Connect went too. Rich Wertz, a math and computer science teacher at VHS who serves as the BOE’s technology coordinator, quickly figured a way to rig the system to his cell phone and get calls and e-mails out (yes, that was Wertz’ voice on the phone).

Some notices also went out through the e-mail service tied to Verona Recreation Department’s online registration system for Rec classes. But Community Pass needed the power to be on at the Community Center to work, and power wasn’t always on in the snowstorm. Verona did not put storm information on the town Web site. (MyVeronaNJ.com got its updates out thanks to an iPad2 and Verizon 3G service in case you are curious.)

Which brings us back to the Verona Police and Nixle. On Tuesday, anyone who had already signed up to get e-mail alerts from the VPD got a message asking them to sign up for Nixle. Sometimes called a reverse 911 system, it can send e-mail messages as well as text, and you can also access your Nixle alerts from the Internet. In fact, you can view the alerts already sent by the VPD through the Verona Police page. It is free to sign up for Nixle, although you will be charged whatever your phone carrier usually charges you for text messages. Nixle doesn’t work with non-U.S. phone numbers, but once you have registered you can get alerts from multiple locations in the U.S., like your kid’s college campus and grandma’s house in Florida.

“New communication forms continue to evolve,” the Police Department said in its e-mail announcing the service, “and we believe this service will allow us to keep you informed in the most convenient, reliable way possible.”

If you haven’t yet signed up for Nixle, you can do so through the Verona Police page. Just don’t pick up your messages while driving: That’s still a violation in Verona.

 

 

 

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected].

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