Internet emergency alert service designed for government use

Internet emergency alert service designed for government use

ATLANTA'Fine Point Technologies Inc. of New York is working on a system that would let government communicate with citizens over the Internet, pushing alerts and warnings directly to desktop PCs.

This would be a new approach to emergency warnings. Except for a few instances such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio system, which broadcasts weather conditions and alerts, government has traditionally depended on commercial media to distribute such information. The Emergency Alert System, for example, is used by government to send alerts via broadcast stations and cable systems.

The CyberTruck Emergency Notification System would let agencies bypass service providers to communicate with any constituent who is online.

'We're not really sure how this is going to play out,' said Fine Point spokeswoman Emily Etherington. The company has just begun making contacts with state, local and federal organizations to gauge interest.

The most obvious targets for government use are homeland security agencies, weather alerts and national Amber Alerts for missing children.

The Emergency Notification System is a reworking of the company's Direct Messenger, part of its CyberTruck product line. Direct Messenger is used by ISPs to communicate with subscribers. Another product, Direct Update, is used by ISPs to push software upgrades to subscribers. The government version is expected to be available this month and will be based on the Direct Update Server being introduced by Fine Point at the SuperComm trade show this week.

Direct Messenger lets ISPs broadcast messages to subscribers that appear in pop-up screens when the user is online. Unlike instant messaging, it is a one-way link and does not maintain an open connection with the server. The client software queries the server at preset intervals to check for messages.

The company got the idea of offering the technology to governments when some ISPs began using Direct Messenger to broadcast Amber Alerts to subscribers, said marketing vice president Antonia Townsend. Company officials thought, why not cut out the middleman and let agencies broadcast their own alerts?

Fine Point is bundling the software with a simplified management interface in a rack-mounted Dell PowerEdge server, 'so we could market it to government agencies that don't have large IT staffs,' Etherington said.

The server runs Microsoft Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server. The client software runs on PCs running Windows 95 or later operating systems and on Macintosh computers with the PowerPC processor running Mac OS System 7.6 or Mac OS X. Access to the server is password protected. Messages can be customized through a Web interface or can be selected from a catalog of existing messages. Recipient lists can be defined according to a variety of criteria.

The client is a lightweight application that regularly queries the server via an encrypted Secure Sockets Layer link. When a new message is found on the server, the client loads the HTML engine and displays it. The engine is unloaded when the user closes the message box.

In addition to law enforcement, weather and security bulletins, the system could be used by school districts to distribute school closing information, transportation agencies to give notice of schedule changes or traffic conditions, or any other agency with a need to push information down or out.

Participation in the system would be voluntary for citizens, who would have to install the client on their computers.

'It couldn't become spammy because no one else could access' the client, Townsend said.

Pricing has not been determined, but the company envisions the server selling in the $5,000 price range. Client software probably would be offered in an unlimited license. Agencies probably would distribute client software free, either by CD or by download from a Web site.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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