• United States



by Dave Gradijan

Emergency Workers Dump Paging System for Web Alerts

Jan 30, 20073 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The Port of Seattle has expanded an emergency alert and response service that allows for quick communication with as many as 750 people—a rollout that followed a successful trial of the Send Word Now system to 50 emergency officials last year.

In all, the people who are notified of emergencies at the facility work for about 35 different agencies and groups, including police and fire department employees at the airport and seaport, said Ernie Hayden, chief information security officer for the Port of Seattle. The service is designed to notify key personnel in the event of emergency breaches at runways and other areas, fuel spills or updates on snowstorms, he said. It replaces a paging system that had been in use for many years and failed one time last summer.

“With recent bad weather in early January, we used the service for snow [notifications] very actively,” Hayden said. Several messages went out during snowstorms, starting with notices saying “Snow is expected” to “Snow is starting” to “Two feet of snow, everybody report to the airport.” Users can receive notices on a multitude of devices, including cell phones and laptops, and in various modes.

Hayden said the service was the least-expensive option the port considered. The service costs about US$5,000 a year for the first 50 users, with the port paying about US$30,000 a year for all 750 people on its notification list, he said. Since Send Word Now is a service, no new equipment was required, and Hayden or his colleagues can distribute emergency messages by calling or e-mailing the service provider.

New York-based SWN Communications’ Smart Alert Service starts at $10 per user per month, with additional costs based on usage, a spokeswoman said.

“This approach makes it much easier for a dispatcher to manage a response,” Hayden said. In the past, a dispatcher would try to contact key personnel by various modes, but couldn’t always be sure the message was received. Send Word Now includes a response feature that quickly gives the dispatcher a list of who has not responded.

Nick Milos, manager of corporate facilities at the Port of Seattle, said he has tested the system and found 19 of 20 policy makers responded in 15 minutes, up from the two hours it sometimes took to get a response using the old system.

The service does not communicate with the 800MHz public safety band of devices, including two-way radios carried by police and firefighters, Hayden noted. “But if you have an emergency and want to tell everybody very quickly, this does that and very reliably,” he said.

Although Hayden said he could try to notify a group via an e-mail blast, “I wouldn’t know if they got the e-mail.”

The hardest part of using the service was adding the names of those receiving messages into the system, Hayden said. But it’s very easy to keep contact information up to date, he said, since users are responsible for contacting the service and saying which group of devices should receive the messages.

The port’s alert service fills a gap apparent in some emergency response systems, said Tole Hart, an analyst at Gartner. Though it would not be as useful for responders at the scene of a crisis, it could help with interoperability at a central command center, he said.

“But with public safety channels getting congested, this is a pretty interesting approach,” Hart said.

-Matt Hamblen, Computerworld