When tornadoes rolled through western Massachusetts last year, communication was challenging. In an area not prone to tornadoes, there was no tornado alert system. Most people found out about the storm by watching TV or listening to the radio.
Technology could change that.
Several police departments and universities, like UMass Lowell and the University of New Hampshire, have signed on to a new smartphone app that allows them to send emergency messages to residents or any smartphone in an affected area.
"When a bank gets robbed, the police typically have the video within minutes, but then they have to wait until the five o'clock news comes on," explained Jim Bender, president and CEO of Ping4, based in Nashua, N.H.
"This enables them to put a video clip of the bank robbery on everybody's phone and say, 'This happened five minutes ago and we're looking for this person and we think they got away in a white van.'
"And the other issue is missing children," Bender continued. "By the time somebody qualifies for an Amber Alert, that child can be long gone and far away. This puts a real-time tool in the hands of the police department.
"So when a child goes missing and there's reason to believe there might be an abduction, the police department can light up every phone around, say the shopping mall where the little 4-year-old girl went missing, put a picture of the girl on the phone, and say when this little girl went missing, 30 minutes ago, she was wearing yellow shirt and red pants. If you see her, please call the police department and let us know where you saw her."
People download the app for free. Police departments, universities or other groups pay for the technology. They are given a license that allows them to draw a box around a specific area that should get the alert. Every smartphone within that area that has the Ping4 app will then get the alert.
Blackstone Police Chief Ross Atstupenas said he decided to buy the Ping4 alert system because of communication difficulties after Hurricane Irene rolled up the coast last year, knocking out power in Blackstone for a week.
"With this technology, the people who leave and go to stay with family, if they download their app on their phone, they're able to still get notifications on road closures, power loss," Atstupenas said. "They're still able to get what's happening in town."
As for getting too many alerts — on crime, missing children, severe weather and the like — Bender said he's not concerned about alarm fatigue.
"I think for the most part, your phone will sit quietly for 99.99-something-percent of the time," Bender said. "It's only in a crisis that people will use this."
And he maintained that privacy was a top concern.
"We absolutely maintain your anonymity," he said. "And even if we were subpoenaed, we have no way of knowing where you are or that you're in an area where you're receiving an alert. And neither do the police, neither do the university officials. It's completely anonymous."
This program aired on June 14, 2012.