Contribute > ideas > Public Alerts App

The recent public alerts system test demonstrated the need for a much more capable system. A dedicated app that can push notifications to registered citizens would be a powerful addition to the current system. The ability to override silenced ringtones, and utilize location-based technology would both be key capability improvements. An app could also introduce powerful tools to create a meaningful and useful flow of information BACK to city officials. App users could respond to simple questions/polls and give officials realtime data.

Major Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes could be reported to Portland residents as much as 45 seconds before the energy from the quake reaches the city. For anyone who lives, works, or goes to school in a seismically unsound building (there are plenty here), this could be the difference between life and death.

The shortage of available Applications/Datasets below is itself an indictment of the need to create a robust capability in this area. I suspect the infrastructure needed to make this a reality may not yet be in place, but the platform can be created ahead of that, and serve in myriad other instances where timely information needs to be relayed to citizens. USGS and state geology, knowing that there is a conduit for realtime data, might well be spurned into more rapid action. Our goal should be to surpass Japan (which has realtime broadcast alert capability for major quakes).

rogerimp :: February 17, 2012 - 3:51pm

Definitely agree with your premise. If you could think of a way to leverage people's existing networks to reach people who aren't directly registered, that'd be great (for example, a FB app that remains logged in and posts a link to the warning immediately without needing action from you). If you could use SMS that could help too for the many citizens without 24/7 computer access - say, people could register to be broadcasters and I believe an Android app can have permissions to send SMS; all registered broadcasters would automatically blanket their contacts with the emergency message (maybe limited by area code?, or up to some predefined limit?). Anyway great idea and clearly needed. Lots of potential ways to attack this problem.

EthanPDX :: February 20, 2012 - 10:56am

A small teachable moment occurred last week when Portland Police requested a Public Alert be sent to residents around a standoff in NE. One part of the message was that Faubion Elementary was in lockdown. The geographic capabilities/limitations of the current system only allowed them to target land lines in the immediate geographic area, but almost no ability to target the broader area served by the school, much less parents who don't actually live close to the school. Watching the compensating information stream that parents led on FB/Twitter made it clear that we need something much more capable. Most of the parents who recieved the voicemail messages found them upon returning home, hours after the message was left . . . basically a system who's core strength is landlines will get less and less powerful every year. I do agree that the success of any system will rest with adoption rates. That said, the incident last week will undoubtably spur many Faubion parents to register, and the informal network they have will be reinforced by having more nodes getting the initial alert. I guess my heartburn is pretty simple. FirstCall's system is, at the end of the day, a database. As such I should be able to add the name or address or even just the zip code of all schools where my kids attend. I fear that the last of transparency and accountability in these types of projects means that a vendor made a feature set for a price that was most likely made possible by a grant. Too many of these otherwise valuable ideas (Anyone ever heard of the Voluntary Emergency Registry?) die because they are not dynamically developed and the public is not involved.

EthanPDX :: February 20, 2012 - 3:19pm

Small correction/edit: Since writing the above I have learned that Japan's early warning system uses p-wave detectors (p-waves move much faster than the main earthquake energy), not seafloor seismographs. This makes implementation much more straightforward (since they can be on land along the coast).

rocly :: March 8, 2012 - 12:51am

Hi Ethan, My company is a PDX-based mobile messaging service called Celly, Our core service creates instant mobile communication groups. The service works via SMS, web, and email. The service is designed for a wide variety of school and community communication needs, including parent alerts about school issues. Regarding non-optimal communication between the police and area schools, I've spoken directly to both PPB and PPS safety officials about the lockdown notification scenario you mention. PPS believed they had solutions for such scenarios and were not interested in any help (even for free). At any rate, if the Faubion Elementary parents and surrounding neighborhoods are interested, please ask them to checkout The school might create a parent text alert cell (what we call a mobile messaging group) with unlimited members. The surrounding neighborhoods could create neighborhood watch cells too. These independent cells can even be linked together to form an overall communication network. Best of all, Celly is a free service (we make money on premium services). Please let me know (email if you need any assistance. BTW, the notion of a Public Alerts App is a great idea. We're deploying a smartphone app that can connect to public alerts datasets particularly any Twitter or RSS feed. Very sincerely, Russell Cofounder Celly

jasonDWS :: April 23, 2012 - 3:41pm

Hi Everyone, Me and a few coworkers just submitted in app to the challenge with an SMS & Email broadcast function similar to the alert system proposed here. It's mainly for users to alert friends and family at this point, but we'll be expanding the feature set as we update it. Send me any feedback or suggestions:

Dr. Paul Perito :: August 9, 2012 - 8:02am

This app lets you prepare for any disaster on its way. Very useful. Good job. -Dr. Paul Perito