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HomeNewsArchivesVITEMA Rolls Out New All-Hazards Alert System

VITEMA Rolls Out New All-Hazards Alert System

Maybe you have to be a techie to get excited about it, but it’s pretty amazing what the new VI-Alert system can do. With just a few quick clicks of the computer mouse, local residents can get everything from earthquake alerts to tsunami warnings sent to their email, fax, text messaging system, and eventually, even their Playstation 3.
The system was officially rolled out Monday, but it has been up and running for the past 40 days, so anyone regularly checking the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency website will notice that it’s already been flooded with bulletins. What’s interesting, though, is that this is only the beginning — starting with a version 2.5 that records a preliminary layer of information, the system will soon grow to a version 3.0 that will weave in new alerts, such as missing children, and escaped convicts or gunmen.
And what’s even better is that the additional information can be at the public’s fingertips within a matter of a few short months, providing real-time data in seconds so that residents and emergency responders can mobilize as quickly as possible during an emergency.
What’s up and running now only really started to take shape on the local level in March, and officials said Monday that it’s already hard-wired for several additional capabilities, such as federal homeland security mandates that haven’t even been implemented yet.
The multi-million dollar system is a product of the New York State Emergency Management Office (SEMO), which has established a partnership with VITEMA, providing the software and technical assistance to the territory for a fraction of the cost — $44,000 upfront for some hardware and equipment that had to be installed in the territory, along with a three-year contract with SEMO that’s free for the first year, then $20,000 per year after that.
So far, the state of New York has spent about $9 million on the system, which is expected to grow to $11 million or so as version 3.0 is developed. Currently, the state budgets $3.2 million a year for the costs.
The two systems will run simultaneously and are designed so that when NY-Alert grows, so does the capability for the territory, according to Kevin Ross, SEMO’s assistant director of technology and one of the brains behind the development of the system’s software. At this point, NY-Alert has seven million people within its system and sends out thousands of alerts — from what Ross called life-threatening bulletins to simple transportation notices — every day.
New York’s citizens have had a lot to do with growing the system — they’ve identified what kind of information they want to be receiving, along with the best ways to send it out. The Nintendo Wii and Playstation 3 capabilities, for example, were inspired by people who’ve said their kids just don’t pick up the phone when they’re playing video games. There’s also a private groups option that allows notifications to be sent out — but not publicly disseminated — to schools, universities and agencies, he added, saying that New York’s system has been used to send private alerts to firemen, police and other such responders.
Currently on the VI-Alert page are options for severe weather alerts, press releases and other publications, public health alerts, beach alerts and earthquakes — but Ross said there at least 100 other options waiting to be activated or added in once the public or local officials specify what they want to see.
VITEMA State Director Mark Walters said Monday that the agency will be rolling out its public outreach efforts, along with meeting with the various government agencies to see what they want and develop protocols for notifications. There’s going to be a meeting of the territory’s emergency management council later in the week to test out what’s running so far, Walters added.
SEMO also boasts an impressive vendor list, with partners such as Microsoft and Google, which will help, among other things, to create a GIS interface that will eventually be available in the territory. The challenge here, however, is the lack of street data, which the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has been trying to rectify. In the meantime, Ross said a team of experts will be brought down to do a preliminary street layer for the territory, which will be expanded once the territory’s project is further along.
V.I. residents not yet convinced can check out the system at http://www.vialert.gov/home.aspx and see how soon the alerts start coming in. Residents registering will have to give a certain amount of contact information — such as email and phone numbers, along with a wireless carrier if they chose to receive text message alerts. But Ross said all information is voluntarily supplied and secure — remaining out of sight to even the VITEMA officials programming in alerts.
Residents also have the option of choosing what time they want to receive their alerts, signing up family and friends and getting a call back message once they’ve missed the initial alert phone call. And of course, there’s some perks for the first responders, who can even have their typed alerts converted to an audio file
"It’s definitely a win-win for all of us," Walters said Monday, joking that he has had Ross on speed dial ever since February, when contact between the agencies began after a local security exercise pinpointed some sores spots in the territory’s communications system. "It’s remarkable that we’ve already come this far with it — but the system is really flexible, and gives us the ability to modify, which is exactly what we need."
Another upcoming modification, Walters added, is a territory-wide tsunami warning system that will link into VI-Alert. A vendor has already been selected, and negotiations over the contract are ongoing, he added. Federal grants have financed the installation, but there’s currently not enough money to do the entire territory all at once, he explained.

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