Boulder, Colo. wildfireThere's no shortage of emergencies that people would be better off knowing about as soon as possible. Think of parents wondering if their kids' school will be closed for a snowstorm, or homeowners needing an alert about a spreading wildfire or students potentially exposed to on-campus dangers.

And, indeed, companies are springing up to meet those needs. Emergency notification systems that use voice mail and text messages are already a big business, a communications industry that began about two decades ago and continues to grow.

"It was predominantly spawned out of the public-safety environment for emergency-type communication, outbound, into large communities -- for fire situations, for boiled-water notices, for anything you might imagine [that] might represent a threat to the community," says Tami Timperio, vice president of marketing at California-based PlantCML.

That company was purchased in 2008 by EADS (EADSY), the European conglomerate that owns Airbus, for $350 million. PlantCML also owns the Reverse 911 brand of notification systems, used by authorities in several major cities

Timperio says costs for notification systems depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the community and whether the system is to be run remotely or locally.

A "Loud and Clear" Need

A quick survey of related news stories across the U.S. shows these systems usually cost from the tens of thousands of dollars to well over $100,000 at start-up -- with additional maintenance charges and other fees. But some municipalities are discovering they can get deals from system vendors during the economic downturn on variables such as starting costs, technical support and upgrades.

Even if a system is costly, many towns and cities feel they can't skimp when it comes to emergency-notification services. "We heard, loud and clear, people want a Reverse 911 system," said Newton, Mass., Mayor Setti Warren earlier this year -- after his city was one of several in the Boston area whose drinking water was compromised after a massive water-main break in the region.

Other communities are using grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal sources to get their notification systems up and running, or have come up with creative cost-sharing solutions -- stretching the financial burden across different municipal department budgets.

"Encouraging" Results

And there's evidence to back up claims that these systems are important for public safety. A federal study of the 2007 San Diego wildfires says the local reverse-warning system "was the dominant form of first warning" among those surveyed by the study. It said residents receiving such calls were more likely to evacuate endangered areas and that people with higher education levels and younger people were more likely to receive the reverse emergency-warning calls.

"This is the first investigation of this emerging warning technology," the study concludes, "and the findings should be encouraging to communities who have adopted or are considering adopting the reverse telephone warning technology."

These notification products have also been applied to nonemergency situations. Timperio says her company has a system targeted primarily for companies needing to broadcast messages quickly to a large number of employees. "Some of our customers in the financial world use it for. . .instantaneous communication based on market conditions," she says.

Not Foolproof

But these systems are still evolving with the new communications technologies and aren't completely immune to bugs. One company, Everbridge, came under criticism recently after its emergency-notification system failed to send evacuation messages to some residents near Boulder, Colo., ahead of fast-moving wildfires there (pictured).

Emergency text messaging is a part of many notification services. "Text messages, short message service [SMS] are able to be handled by these systems en masse, easily, says Timperio. "We have individual customers that send millions of calls, emails, SMS messages per year."

But while many of these services can send you a text message during an emergency, it's still not possible for individuals to text a 911 emergency message to most public-safety organizations.

"Many communities have set up alternative numbers to handle the texting surge," says Timperio, "so there is a large groundswell to add texting capability for 911 calling. But that's significantly challenged by the infrastructure and needs to be addressed at national levels, such as the FCC."

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Very nice article here Bruce, text message services can be a great way to efficiently share information during an emergency, whether its between family members or public safety officials and the community. My company Globaltel Media has customized our SMS messaging service for these types of emergency situations. From alerting fellow public safety officials (within a specific agency) of an in-process situation to providing community alerts on a massive scale, the potential for SMS benefiting emergency personnel and community members alike is exponential. Thanks again for the article.

September 29 2010 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great. Something else that can be hacked and turned against us. Just so we can know when it's going to rain.

September 20 2010 at 11:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I live so far out in the sticks that I can't get a decent signal on a cell phone and our whole county has roughly 11,000 people in it, but we have had such a system in place for some time now. However, I'm not sure their priorities are the best. They have awakened me to tell me there was a wreck in the opposite end of the county but I don't recall being called with a storm warning. On the other hand, my phone sometimes goes out when it rains, so maybe they try. I have also worked at places that had a tree system (this was probably 40 years ago), whereby one person would call certain key people, they would call the folks on their lists, and so on.

September 20 2010 at 3:27 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This is just politicians waisting more of our money on stuff we don't need. Listen to your radio or t.v. , they need your advertising dollars to.Some times the best intentions bring the worst of things. In short our government needs to quit useing our tax money to kill more private sector jobs such as your local radio & tv stations & find ways to create real meaningful jobs that last more than a year. Just think what communities could do with that $100,000's that these computers would cost. Give me $100,000 dollar rebate on my taxes & I could hire 2 or 4 workers for a year & we do have tornado sirens already & the emergency broadcast system.

September 20 2010 at 12:54 AM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to DUDE's comment

Yes, it does sound like a mega buck scanner.

September 20 2010 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

FEDS - Please just leave us alone !!! Apparently you are dependant on your staff to take care of you..... We are on our own and we can survive because when we need to we all pull in the same direction; friend or foe until the crisis is over..... Funny how we do that automatically without fees, forms to fill out and various waiting periods and the inevitable audit. MY SWEET AMERICA. BTW when I have a problem who exactly is it that I call? Again, leave us alone. We were not created to promote you. Also, why do you all comb your hair the exact same way? Call 911 about that. Thanks. -Richard

September 20 2010 at 12:43 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

reverse 911 been here in Texas a long time

September 19 2010 at 11:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Regarding school closings, and all of that, parents and anyone the parents list on the contact form for this are notified of delays, closings, and anything else. There is a close knit here between the schools, students and parents regarding emails, and needs. Regarding creepy events and schools. There is set protochols in place for the schools and their lockdown procedures. There's also a prison and jail here, but with that comes more protection. Regarding big things that toss the sky, we have airraid sirens and they go off as soon as there is a big storm. The local radio stations - all three and the next big town television stations all have early warning systems. There was not a storm or anything else that the cable system emergency broadcast system didn't warn us about. We're like robots, the sirem or cable alarms go off, and you are warned to take cover or turn on the tv to get the info. I don't know that we need anything else here. Our town is loaded with sheriff, city,and state police. They get the jobs done efficiently and good enough to prevent loss of life. It does not mean that we do not get killer storms close by, what it means is that we know when there is danger.

September 19 2010 at 11:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This system has been in service in Onondaga County in New York state and has been proven to work very well.

September 19 2010 at 10:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

ive lived 50 years without it so im guessing i can live 50 more without it too!

September 19 2010 at 10:27 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
William J

All I have to say about this is that as soon as the government tells you they are there to help it is time to run for the hills. The original was phrased a bit more dramatically, I toned it down a notch for the kiddies.

September 19 2010 at 9:55 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply