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City's electronic alert system is now online

July 21, 2010 12:35 am

BY EMILY BATTLE

BY EMILY BATTLE

Fredericksburg is the latest area locality to launch a system for sending alerts about everything from severe weather to school closings directly to residents' e-mail or mobile devices.

Area residents can now go to fredericksburgalert.com to sign up for a wide variety of messages to be sent to e-mail accounts, cell phones with texting capability and pagers, from various departments in City Hall.

The service is free, and is paid for with a $40,000 grant of federal Homeland Security funds distributed through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The city used that money to purchase the alert system from a company called Cooper Industries.

Stafford, King George and Caroline counties and the University of Mary Washington already offer these services through the same provider.

Spotsylvania County is preparing to launch a similar service. Fire and Rescue Chief Chris Eudailey said the Board of Supervisors could vote to award a contract for the services in the next two months, and the county would begin working on implementation after that.

While many localities use the system mostly for severe weather and emergency alerts, Fredericksburg officials are hoping to broaden its scope to allow city residents to choose alert feeds for a wide array of city services.

Battalion Chief Charles Sterne, who has managed the project from the city fire department, said the capabilities will grow as more users sign up for the alerts, and as city departments discover new ways that they can be used to disperse information.

He and Fire Chief Eddie Allen suggested that people who sign up today should check back on a monthly basis to see if new feeds that interest them are available.

At this point, residents can choose from a vast menu of alert feeds.

FREDericksburg Regional Transit offers information on schedule and route changes.

Parks and Recreation offers feeds on registration, pool and parks information and sports and event cancellations.

The city schools offer feeds with school-specific news, as well as a general school closings feed.

The public works department has established feeds relating to fire hydrant flushing, construction projects, snow removal and other services.

By collaborating with established alert systems in Northern Virginia, the city is also able to offer alerts on traffic conditions in Fairfax and Arlington counties for commuters.

The city can distribute major emergency alerts to anyone who is signed up for the system, no matter what feeds they have checked, Sterne said.

And if users opt to give their physical address as part of registration, city officials can send geographically targeted messages about emergencies in their immediate area.

There is a separate feed for river flooding warnings, and there are several choices for weather alerts. Residents can ask for only severe weather alerts, such as thunderstorm or tornado watches and warnings, or they can ask for broader weather alerts, which include heat and flooding advisories.

All weather information comes from the National Weather Service, not the city. That's why, when a brief but severe storm hit the city on Friday, no weather alert went out over the system, because the NWS never saw it coming.

Sterne said about 300 users have signed up for the system so far. That includes city employees, who will use internal feeds to communicate with each other. For the fire department, this replaces a less-efficient pager alert system.

The alert system can be set up to send text-based messages to an e-mail account, cell phone or other mobile device, but it does not send audio messages.

The city's reverse-911 system still operates with that capability, but it's not as fast; reverse 911 can make only 24 calls at a time.

Emily Battle: 540/374-5413
Email: ebattle@freelancestar.com




Area residents can now sign up for the following electronic alert services:

Fredericksburg: fredericksburgalert.com Stafford County: staffordalert.com King George County: kgalert.com Caroline County: carolinealert.com University of Mary Washington: alert.umw.edu

Users should be aware of what charges they will incur for incoming text messages before signing up a cell phone.




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