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Mass. adds smartphone app for emergency alerts

The Ping4Alerts! app will send messages to users about safety hazards.

The Ping4Alerts! app will send messages to users about safety hazards.

When a bad storm is approaching fast, take cover — and grab your smartphone.

Massachusetts emergency management officials will now be sending out warnings about hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and other potential dangers, even terrorist threats, to state residents via a mobile app developed by a Nashua technology start-up.

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Governor Deval Patrick and state officials announced the addition of smartphone notifications to the Massachusetts emergency alert system on Friday, at the newly renovated State Emergency Operations Center in Framingham.

“This is an additional tool to a suite of systems that we use to communicate with the public during an emergency situation,” said Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which will be responsible for sending out the state’s warnings on the smartphone app.

The free app called Ping4alerts! is available for both iPhone and Android devices and will soon become available for BlackBerrys. It was designed by Ping4 Inc. of Nashua to dispatch messages to users about safety hazards based on their current geographic location. The software relies on the phone’s location-tracking technology and can send out voice messages, maps, and photos.

For instance, if people with the app are within a flash-flood zone, they will see the alert pop up on their phones. In more pressing cases, emergency management officials have the option of sending out audible alerts that will override a phone’s silent mode in hopes that users will see the warnings.

“This is going to allow us to interact directly with the public,” said MEMA spokesman Peter Judge. “Not only can we give them more information, but we can really target this thing down to a particular area.”

‘As people get rid of their landlines, the smartphone becomes the logical means for mass communication.’

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Massachusetts is the first state to use Ping4’s smartphone notification technology, but other municipalities around the country, universities, and federal public safety agencies are tapping into smartphone technology to reach people during emergencies.

“As people get rid of their landlines, the smartphone becomes the logical means for mass communication,” said Ping4 chief executive officer Jim Bender. “Smartphones have been around less than 10 years, and they are the nearest thing to ubiquity that there is.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 45 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and about half of cellphone owners have downloaded an app. Two years ago a Pew survey found that 22 percent of people had signed up to receive e-mail or text alerts about either school updates, weather developments, or crime-related notifications.

Other apps such as Code­RED send out emergency alerts to users, and federal agencies such as the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have made smartphone applications available, too.

Since FEMA released its app last August, it has been downloaded about 40,000 times, according to the agency. It recently saw a 50 percent spike in downloads during Hurricane Isaac.

But unlike the Ping4 app, FEMA’s smartphone application does not send out alerts about pending disasters. Instead, it provides users preparation tips and helps them find assistance after an emergency, said a FEMA spokeswoman.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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