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Contributing writer

Smartphones, social media tied into ELERTS emergency system

Nov 02, 20114 mins
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Chris Russo, deputy fire chief in the Massachusetts coastal town of Hull, launches ELERTS, an emergency communication system that uses smartphones and social media to communicate with first responders and other emergency personnel.

The lost-child story has a happy ending. But better use of mobile technology probably could have brought that happy ending sooner and eliminated an hour or so of hysterical anxiety for a frantic mother.

It is one of the stories that prompted Chris Russo, a veteran deputy fire chief in the Massachusetts coastal town of Hull, to launch ELERTS, an emergency communication system that uses smart phones and social media to communicate with first responders and other emergency personnel.

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A 7-year-old boy had gone into a bathhouse at the beach, he recalls, but wasn’t seen coming out. The child’s mother, who didn’t speak English well, was so hysterical that she couldn’t even tell first responders what color shorts he had on, but feared he had been abducted.

“And we had four miles of beach, with 40,000 or 50,000 people on it,” Russo says.

Two hours later, a helicopter pilot finally spotted the boy on the beach. “But if we could have pushed out a picture or a description of the child (to those with smart phones), we probably would have located him an hour and a half earlier,” he says.

It was this and similar situations that got him thinking: “I’ve been a first responder for 25 years,” he says, “and I just started thinking that we’re surrounded by all this technology, and that with smart phones on mobile platforms, we could get a lot more from the general public than from a bunch of 911 calls.”

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Indeed, people have been taking pictures of disasters, accidents and other events for years, and posting them on Facebook and Twitter or sending them to media outlets. But they did not have a way to send them to emergency responders.

That led Russo two years ago to create ELERTS, which provides a free app for smart phones with the Apple or Android operating systems, available at their respective app stores. In an emergency, users can send pictures or other information to emergency managers, to help them decide how best to respond.

The system uses Google maps to pinpoint the location.

At the other end, emergency managers at government agencies, colleges, universities and other organizations, using a cloud-based management console, can send out warning messages about weather, floods, accidents, fires, missing children, terrorist attacks and any other type of emergency, telling people how to stay out of harm’s way.

Users might wonder about privacy: Does the app make it possible for those with management consoles to track the location of users without their knowledge or consent?

“Anyone can turn off the GPS on their phone whenever they want to, globally or per app,” Russo says. “Users have the option to allow the app to use their location.”

But he stresses the benefits of allowing the app to monitor location.

“If a user chooses to receive emergency weather alerts ‘around my location,'” then the system will send those alerts accordingly.

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Russo says his company, which now employs 12 people, is superior to the federal government’s recently updated Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), based on the Commercial MobileAlert System (CMAS) specification, which is used to send presidential alerts, amber alerts and warnings of imminent threats to mobile phones.

“I applaud the intent,” Russo says, “but in some ways, it’s going backward.”

He notes that CMAS/PLAN is not interactive — it doesn’t allow individuals to respond or comment on the warnings. It is not backward compatible with more than 300 million mobile phones already in use in the U.S. And it reduces the 160-character limit under the old SMS (Shore Message System) to just 90.

Russo started the company on his own, but it wasn’t until 14 months ago, with the help of some angel investors, that he incorporated. “We haven’t even gone to a full launch yet,” he says, “but I’m really excited about it. There’s a huge need for this kind of thing out there.”