New system to warn residents much faster

Published October 26, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - If Hurricane Wilma had rushed north and forced evacuations in St. Petersburg, a new emergency notification system would have been used to get residents moving.

Called Communicator! NXT, the Internet-based system can make 2,000 connections per minute compared with 500 to 800 calls per hour under the old telephone-based approach, police say.

It means the entire city could be warned about an emergency in a little over two hours. The old system, in theory, could take days.

"It's a mapping program wrapped inside a phone calling program," said Chip Wells, crime prevention officer.

It allows emergency planners to notify the entire city, as in the case of an approaching storm, or a section as small as a block if residents needed warning about something like a chemical spill.

Evacuation routes, shelter locations and safety measure to take can be included in the messages.

Residents can be notified through telephones, cell phones, pagers or e-mail.

But the 9-1-1 data base the city uses doesn't include cable or cell phones or e-mail addresses. People who want to be in the loop through those services should sign up by visiting http://www.stpete.org/police/communicator.htm

The program was installed three weeks ago and has yet to be tested. The startup cost was $40,000. That's included in the total $100,000 cost for the current three-year contract the city has with Dialogic Communications Corp., a Tennessee emergency communications company founded in 1982.

"For the city, it's very much an insurance policy" aimed at making sure residents are as safe as possible, Wells said.

Other Florida government agencies in Hillsborough, Duval and Dade counties have signed up for the technology, according to the company's Web site.

Wells used a SWAT team scenario to illustrate how the system could be used on a small scale:

If someone was inside a house firing a weapon, residents within a block or two could be notified and told to leave, if possible, while those closest to the problem house - next door or across the street, for example - might be told to stay put and hunker down below window level.

Target areas can be designed in any way necessary, Wells said.

"We can do it in a radius, a circle, square, polygons, whatever you need to do to identify a certain area. Then all it takes is us making a message and clicking it, and it goes out," he said.

By next hurricane season, Wells said, he will have all the city's evacuation zones mapped and saved in the system.

"The process will be click, gone," he said.