Merrimack Fire Department rolls out emergency alerts

MERRIMACK – A new notification system in Merrimack will let public safety officials deliver emergency updates directly to residents’ cell phones and inboxes.

The Merrimack Fire Department instituted the new system last week through a private, San Francisco-based company called Nixle, said Chief Michael Currier.

Nixle provides a secure Web site where emergency officials log in and send messages to subscribers. The messages, delivered through e-mail, text message and Web page update, will focus on super-local advisories – such as flood and snowstorm warnings – and emergencies, such as a car crash closing a road or an evacuation.Using mapping technology, officials can also target information to specific geographic areas in town, Currier said. This would be useful, say, during a small chemical spill.

The system will also be helpful for dispensing public health information, Currier said. For example, with the current H1N1 outbreak, officials could send out advisories if schools were closing because of a suspected case in one of the buildings, or if the town was activating its plans to distribute anti-viral medication.

In the most extreme cases, Currier said, “We could give everyone the information without them having to leave their homes.”

While the timing happens to align with the recent outbreak of H1N1 – or swine flu – Currier has been investigating a communication service for the last few years. Most other programs cost money – in the ballpark of $10,000 per year – to cover maintenance and upkeep.

Last Monday, Currier received information on Nixle and learned the company would host a database free to municipalities, but it called for officials to handle the messaging and upkeep. It’s worth the effort, Currier said, in exchange for the communication capabilities.

Nixle’s founder and Chief Executive Officer Craig Mitnick would agree, saying his goal all along was to develop a system that provided users valid, neighborhood-level information.

“The Internet is so large and so vast that it allows you to purchase any item anywhere in world with the click of a mouse or to connect with anyone anywhere, but when we lose our dog, we’re still posting flyers on telephone polls,” Mitnick said. “That makes no sense to me . . . My wife and I should not have to pay to know that our children are safe . . . The idea is it’s a whole communication system that is authenticated, where people can get trusted information and not have to pay for it.”

The company makes money through technology sales and licensing.

Mitnick said some important accounts associated with the popular social-networking site Twitter have been compromised with unauthenticated information, including that of the Boston Police Department.

“Social networking tools are great for connection to family and friends, but they’re not built for trusted community information from public safety officials,” Mitnick said.

Nixle has employed layers of security measures, he added.

Before municipal officials register, a company representative cross-references their identification information “to make sure we know they are who they say they are,” Mitnick said.

And even though Nixle hosts the database, it will not access content.

“We do not touch that system,” Mitnick said.

Nixle has also partnered to locate its servers at NLETS, a nonprofit organization that links local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in electronic information exchange.

Nixle launched nationwide in February and since then, more than 600 communities nationwide have signed up for the service, Mitnick said, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Baltimore.

Around here, the towns of Merrimack, Hancock and Hillsborough County have “gone live” with the service, while 12 other New Hampshire communities are testing it out. Locally, those include Amherst, Hollis and Litchfield, Mitnick said.

Officials in Merrimack haven’t sent out any alerts yet and are still in the set-up phase, Currier said. He could not confirm yet how many people had registered.

Currier said the department ensures the public it won’t abuse the system for “needless” alerts, and Nixle promised that no “spam” or advertising is associated with the system.

Residents can register at For questions, contact the fire department’s emergency management division at