In an age when most American adults carry smartphones, police departments and other agencies across the Alle-Kiski Valley and the nation are turning to social media and text message-based services to communicate with residents.
The messages range from crime alerts to nonemergency announcements about municipal events.
On Tuesday alone:
• New Kensington police turned to Facebook to ask residents for information regarding a robbery late Monday at the Family Dollar store in Parnassus.
• The Lower Burrell Police Department issued an advisory to residents using Everbridge Nixle, a text message-based alert system, to warn drivers about several vehicle break-ins in town.
• In Florida, after a 16-year-old boy was kidnapped during a home invasion, cellphones across the country lit up with Amber Alerts seeking information on his whereabouts.
According to Lower Burrell police Chief Tim Weitzel, use of systems such as Nixle or Facebook to communicate important information directly to residents just makes sense.
“It pushes information out rapidly,” he said. “Why not try to change with the times and utilize technology? Anybody who subscribes can find out information right away. “Ultimately, maybe we can stop people from being the victim of crimes like those car break-ins.”
Plum police Chief Jeff Armstrong said his department decided to use Nixle because the public is increasingly looking for ways to get information fast.
“People want to know what’s going on in their city,” he said. “We were looking for a way to easily disseminate important information. Nixle seemed to provide us that ability.”
Police departments aren’t the only government entities using these sorts of notifications.
COMMUNITY NEWS SOURCE
Plum residents who sign up for Nixle online receive text message alerts about emergencies, accidents, road closures and events.
Since 2012, Westmoreland County has used Nixle alerts to keep courthouse and county park visitors, along with employees, updated on local emergencies and weather warnings.
The Everbridge website, where residents can sign up for Nixle alerts, shows that at least 15 area agencies have used the notification system at one point or another.
And most Valley police departments maintain an active Facebook presence.
Social media and other systems that can relay information to cellphones are useful tools for law enforcement and other agencies because they can communicate to a wide group of people — even if they’re not home.
Amber Alerts and their parent program, the federal Emergency Alert System, can send emergency information to every phone in America in minutes.
Unlike social media and other private systems, these services can be used only by authorized agencies. Some require specific criteria to be met before they can be activated.
TWITTER, FACEBOOK USE GROWS
The rise of the internet and social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have allowed law enforcement agencies to supplement and relay information to the public quickly outside of the government-run alert systems.
Use of social media platforms by police departments across the country has grown substantially in recent years.
A survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police showed more than 96 percent of agencies are using social media, with 94 percent using Facebook and about 70 percent using Twitter.
Everbridge spokesman Jeff Benanto said that police departments and government agencies across the country are signing up for instant communication systems for good reason.
In 2016, when winter storm Jonas dumped record amounts of snowfall in parts of Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C., the Nixle alert system was used by over 900 counties and other agencies to send more than 17 million text messages to people affected by the storm.
Benanto said that so far more than 8,000 agencies and governmental bodies in the United States have signed up.
Systems such as Nixle aren’t just for emergencies.
When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015, city residents were able to request information about events and traffic, Benanto said.
During Super Bowl 50, residents of Santa Clara and San Francisco received similar updates.
MASS MESSAGING’S BENEFITS
Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City, said police departments are turning to social media and systems such as Nixle because they are aware of the benefits.
“I think they learned from the weather alerts and people getting messages directly with their cellphones,” he said. “With the work-related violence and school shootings we have happening, they figured it was a way to get information out to everybody. It’s a viable way to reach a mass of people instantly.”
Benanto said he couldn’t think of a time when his company’s product was supposed to work but failed, but he did admit that mistakes are possible. He said a police department could accidently send information out that was meant as a system test but fail to notify recipients that the message was a test.
There is no cost to subscribe to alerts aside from additional data and text charges from a cellular company. Agencies can sign up for more advanced functionality, but also may subscribe to use the system free of charge with limited capability.
Lower Burrell, for example, pays nothing to send alerts as they did Tuesday.
Residents not signed up for notification from Nixle or using Facebook or other social media still will receive emergency messages on television and radio.