By Michael Hartwell/Sentinel and Enterprise
The free “Ping4alerts!” app allows public-safety agencies to send messages to people who are located in targeted areas. Evangelidis said the system is much cheaper than the old Reverse 911 system the office used to offer and offers more flexibility and faster response times.
Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis is embracing smartphone technology with this week’s deployment of a new emergency notification system that sends emergency text messages to people who opt in.
“To me, that’s a no-brainer. That’s a win-win,” said Evangelidis.
In 2008, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office received Homeland Security grants for an emergency-notification system through the brand Reverse 911. That allowed his office and local police and fire departments to send pre-recorded audio messages to landline phone numbers. The process took a few hours to send a message, required special equipment and cost several hundred thousand dollars each year.
Last October, Hurricane Sandy damaged the roof of the building where the Reverse 911 equipment was located and destroyed it. Evangelidis said that was the final straw and they shut it down.
“The Homeland Security money is going the way of the dinosaur,” said Evangelidis.
He said they were able to negotiate an annual cost of $10,000 for the entire county for Ping4alerts!. That amount is paid for as part of the Sheriff’s Office budget, but is less than what they had to kick in each year for Reverse 911.
On Monday, Worcester County became the first to have countywide deployment of Ping4alerts! when the system was rolled out in the area. People who download the free app are not required to sign up for an account or type in where they live. The system uses a process called “geofencing” to only send messages to users currently in a specific area by using a combination of GPS, cellular networks and Wi-Fi hot spots. That area can be drawn on a map and could be as small as a parking space.
The system is also used by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and other law-enforcement agencies across the world. Users will receive messages if they travel into another area that participates in the program.
Evangelidis said MEMA used the same system to send out emergency information during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing to people in Watertown.
Maurice Myrie, director of information technology for the sheriff’s office, said the new system can send messages for situations like missing children, police standoffs and major traffic accidents. He said users can set some limitations on what messages they receive, such as shutting off ones between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The Ping4alerts! system was developed for commercial use and can be used to receive shopping discount notifications, but those messages can be shut off.
To transmit a message, local police and fire departments have to send in a message through a smartphone, email or fax machine to the sheriffs department where an official will approve it and write it up. Myrie said the entire process can be completed in five to 10 minutes.
“We’re not going to do cat-in-a-tree alerts,” said Myrie. He said they want to avoid sending too many message so users don’t tune them out.
Evangelidis said they were going to roll out the system a few months ago, but their early tests showed users were getting too many stray messages and they waited until programmers could reduce the volume of messages to a lower level.
Police and fire departments in Worcester county do not have to pay to participate in the system. Evangelidis said they are already considered signed up and can send in messages starting this week.