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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published December 20 2013

ND counties to get mobile alert system for emergencies

BISMARCK - Smartphone users in North Dakota counties that currently lack a mobile alert system could soon be receiving alerts about blizzards, floods and other emergencies.

The state Department of Emergency Services is working with Nashua, N.H.-based Ping4 Inc. to offer the ping4alerts! mobile app service to counties that wish to pay for it.

Department spokeswoman Cecily Fong said a lot of North Dakota residents no longer have landline phones, and Emergency Services has recognized the need for technology to notify cellphone users about blizzard and tornado warnings, floods, Amber Alerts for missing children and other emergencies that threaten personal safety or property.

“It’s a big thing statewide, but we’ve also got a huge influx of people who don’t have landlines,” she said, referring to the growing population in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch. “They’re from California or Texas or wherever and they’ve got a cell phone that originates out of state, and this is just a tool that we’re going to use to let them know when there’s some emergency.”

Ping4alerts! is a free app for Apple and Android mobile devices that uses location-based technology to deliver alerts to mobile devices within a highly localized area.

Operators will be able to draw a shape on a map as small as a street block to push an emergency notification to those inside the “geofence,” according to a news release from Ping4. The alerts are delivered over the Internet through GPS, cellular and available wi-fi networks.

At least 16 of North Dakota’s 53 counties currently have reverse 911 services that issue alerts to landline and cellphone users who sign up, according to an Emergercy Services survey earlier this year.

Cass County uses the CodeRED system, while Grand Forks County and at least six others use CityWatch. At least five counties use Global Connect, and two use the Wireless Emergency Notification System (WENS) network.

“This is just going to be an opportunity for some of those other counties who might not have been able to afford that technology to use the system that we’ve purchased,” Fong said.

The state is paying $75,000 for the service under a two-year contract with Ping Inc. The federal Emergency Management Performance Grant program is covering 75 percent of the cost, while Emergency Services general fund dollars and county user fees will cover the state’s $18,750 share, Fong said.

Counties will have to pay 3.4 cents per cellphone number, per month to use the system. Counties will manage their own alerts, but Emergency Services will also be able to send out statewide alerts to all who have the app, Fong said.

“Using Ping4 Inc.’s technology, we are now able to notify North Dakota’s 700,000 residents and any visitors to the state of immediate dangers and emergencies,” Greg Wilz, the state’s director of homeland security, said in the company’s news release.

Unlike CodeRED, ping4alerts! doesn’t have reverse 911 capability, said Kyla Natali, public relations manager for Ping4. However, as an “anonymous” phone app, it also doesn’t require users to provide personal identification information such as phone numbers, street addresses or email addresses, which helps to allay privacy concerns, she said.

North Dakota will be the second state to deploy the ping4alerts! system. Natali said Massachusetts has used it three times for high profile-events: Hurricane Sandy, the blizzard that followed and the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It’s also used by the nonprofit Center for Search & Investigations, which helps find missing children, she said.

The app can be downloaded for free from Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Fong said Emergency Services will begin testing the alert system after Jan. 1 and hopes to have it available for users sometime in January.