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December 10, 2013
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Mobile app aims to save lives with targeted alerts

The Ping4 app and service is highly configurable for users on both Apple iOS and Android-based mobile phones

Communicating with a mobile population is easier than ever, because nearly everyone has a cellular or Wi-Fi-connected device to stay in touch, wherever they are. A refinement of this technology is the ability send messages targeted to people with specified interest in that message. 

When the targeted group is determined by geography, such as everyone who lives or works in a city, the message goes to only those people who have registered for that location. People who are passing through or don’t visit a region frequently can miss out on important, possibly life-saving, notices. 

A smartphone application and service called ping4alerts! seeks to remove that limitation. Ping4alerts! subscribers receive notices based not only on the locations they’ve listed as being of interest, but also those they just happen to be in at the time of the alert. 

Hypothetical Example
For example, say that a woman works in downtown San Francisco, but commutes there from Mountain View, a city about 40 miles and two counties to the south. She can sign up for alerts for both Mountain View and San Francisco, but doesn’t want to be bothered with every local bulletin issued by the dozen or so cities she passes through each day. 

If she is signed up with ping4alerts!, she’ll receive alerts issued by subscriber agencies in the cities where she lives and works, as well as those issued by authorities in whatever community she is in at that moment. She might not be signed up for alerts from the San Mateo Police, but if she is inside San Mateo boundaries at the time of the alert, she’ll receive it on her phone. 

Ping4alerts! provides considerable flexibility in determining the boundaries of the alert zone. The area can be as small as a building or as large as an entire state. Agencies serving relatively small populations, such as college and hospital police agencies, can restrict a notice to the campus boundaries, or maybe extend them by a few blocks around the facility. The GPS receiver inside the subscriber’s phone determines whether the user will be notified of the alert or not. 

Of course, subscribers might be interested in receiving alerts concerning their homes or workplaces, even if they aren’t there at the moment. The subscriber options allow them to be advised of all alerts for a particular area, whether they happen to be there or not. 

Alerts default to push notifications that link to the app, but can include links to voice/sound files, web sites, or maps of evacuation routes. The subscriber agency determines the format of the message and what information it will contain, as well as the geographic boundary where it will be broadcast. Setting the boundary is as simple as drawing a geographic “fence” on a map. 

If an alert comes through when the user is asleep or otherwise has their phone muted, the alert tone can break through the mute setting. This setting, too, is configurable by the user. 

Cost and Availability
At this writing, ping4alerts! is being used by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Center for Search and Investigations of Missing Children on the state and national level. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, otherwise known as the folks who provide weather reports) subscribes and can furnish daily almanac data like high and low tide times, if desired by the user. 

The phone application is free for users. The costs are paid by subscriber agencies. Subscriber costs are determined by the census of their service population, billed at $0.08 per person per year — a community of 100,000 people would pay $8,000, for example. 

The fee includes training and support, and the capability to send an unlimited number of alerts. 

The ping4alerts! app is available for both iOS and Android phones. 


About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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