01/28/2008

Connect-CTY offers emergency dispatch system

Mass notification systems alerts people in three towns by phone, text message or email.

By Bonnie L. Cook
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — In July 2006, a storm cut off power to parts of Lower Providence Township for five days. Police went door to door, telling residents how to cope.
A month later, officials got word that dynamite was buried in a local backyard. Officers knocked on doors, telling some neighbors to evacuate, others to stay.

Should trouble strike again, don't expect a knock at the door, Township Manager Joseph Dunbar says. Instead, look for a new emergency notification system to call.

"Hello, this is an important message from Lower Providence Township," a recording says. The voice of a township official goes on to explain the nature of the emergency.

The tool is called Connect-CTY. It's a mass notification service for communities, marketed by the NTI Group in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The firm does business at 17,000 sites nationally. Its software is customized for military, academic and municipal applications, spokeswoman Natasha Rabe said.

The service consists of a Web site that township officials can access to dispatch messages. All hardware and software are owned and maintained by NTI.

Lower Providence signed up early this month at a yearly cost of $15,500. It joins Upper Providence Township and West Chester Borough as the first Philadelphia-area governments to subscribe, NTI and township officials said.

Though the decision to join flows from the atmosphere created by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, no Homeland Security money is involved, Dunbar said. Instead, the township pays out of its general fund.

What township leaders like most is the quick action they say they can get from the service. They can log in from anywhere and send an urgent message to their entire constituency, officials said. A single keystroke triggers thousands of calls within minutes.

Craig M. Dininny, chairman of the township's Board of Supervisors, said the service would warn citizens about "severe weather conditions, water quality, missing children alerts, or street closures."

"The focus is to get messages to our residents in a timely manner," Lower Providence Police Chief Francis L. Carroll said. "This is just a valuable, valuable tool."

Depending on the priorities set by citizens in the township's database, a message goes out in a certain order to their land line, cell phone, e-mail account, handheld digital assistant, or text-messaging service. Deaf citizens receive a message on their specially tailored telephones.

"If you are an elderly person, you can make sure your daughter gets the message," even though she might live out of state, Carroll said.

"The system will call a 609 number or whatever number is entered. It doesn't have to be 610, 484 or 215," he said.

Calls can be made within a plume-shaped target area to those in danger of hazardous materials contamination. Or calls can be targeted to select groups of citizens who should react differently to the same dangerous situation, Carroll said.

The system reports back to municipal leaders on how many citizens it reached and how. When it fails, the system breaks down the reasons.

During a test launch Jan. 18 at the township building in Eagleville, some in attendance entered their cell-phone numbers in the database. Within several minutes, their phones began to ring.

A summary of the test released by Lower Providence on Jan. 19 showed that of 9,295 homes and businesses tried, contact was made in 7,690, or 82.7 percent of cases.

In the 17.3 percent that failed, contact wasn't made because of factors such as obsolete phone numbers, or fax machines receiving the call instead of phone lines that can be answered.

"We will move forward to correct that data," said Charles DeFrangesco, the township's emergency management coordinator.

Feedback is important when there is danger. As a crisis unfolds, "we get feedback as to who answered the phone and who didn't," Carroll said, and officers then go to those few homes.

To recipients with caller ID, the calls show up as 999-999-9999. There is no separate fee to individual homes for the notification call.

Ernie B. McNeely, manager of West Chester Borough, said he likes the service because it is user-friendly.

"It walks you through the process. It's hard to mess up," McNeely said.

Lee Milligan, assistant manager of Upper Providence Township, said the service appealed to township leaders who use it to send out news of public works projects, parks and recreation programs, and other public events.

"We think it will probably get more use for other applications than emergencies," Milligan said.

Public safety officials in Lower and Upper Merion Townships were withholding action on buying NTI's service until Montgomery County rolls out its own emergency notification system during the first quarter of 2008.

The county's system is a "reverse 911 system" with the capability of reaching cell-phone and text-message users, county public safety director Tom Sullivan said.

It isn't clear yet if that system will dovetail with the municipalities' mass notification service, officials said.

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