City officials shop for new alert system

Program manager looking to expand tools at emergency workers' disposal

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2008

For a long time, the best way to quickly disseminate emergency information en masse was through television and radio. "We interrupt this broadcast to activate the Emergency Alert System" - that sort of thing.

But as information technology has advanced, so have the options for getting the word out to everyone at home, at work or in between with phones, computers - even text messages, the bane of many teenagers' parents.

Fresh back from an emergency management conference held in Kansas last week, Juneau Emergency Program Manager Mike Branum said his department is testing and comparison-shopping a variety of community notification products that will expand on the tools already at emergency workers' disposal.

The city received an $80,000 grant from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management this fall earmarked for the new community notification system.

One Internet-based system now on trial is FlashBRIEF, Branum said. This system relies on computer users to install a small program that runs in the background. When the need arises, emergency management officials can put out a message that pops up in seconds on the screens of all computers with the program and an Internet connection.

Obviously that system is only effective when someone is actually sitting in front of a computer, but it makes a lot of sense during the business day, Branum said. A decision may be made on FlashBRIEF in January, pending technical review. The price point is definitely appealing because the company is offering it free to capital cities.

Other systems are phone-based: Think robocalls meet emergency dispatcher and you get the idea. Mass notification products for mobile phones are also being considered, but unlike with landline systems, text messaging would be the preferred format over voice.

"With (Hurricane) Katrina, often voice wouldn't get through but SMS would. It's a more reliable transmission," Branum said.

Each of these systems has its own pros and cons over what's already in place, but they are intended to complement existing systems rather than replace them. Redundancy is usually a bad word in government, but not when it comes to emergency management.

"Our goal is to plan for the worst and hope for the best," Branum said. " I hope we never have to use half the things we plan for."

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