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New weather alert available by cell phone

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Information Technologist and “Weather Guru” Chris Andrews demonstrates WEMA’s weather prediction systems in the Weather Operations Center at WEMA Headquarters on Oak Street. WEMA went live with NIXLE, a free text message and email alert system, this week.

ZACK OWENSBY / The Wilson Post

By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post

It’s called Nixle.

And it’s the newest addition to the weather notification system added to Wilson County Emergency Management Agency’s capabilities.

“Although we won’t be able to reach everybody, (Nixle) has a lot of potential,” said WEMA Director John Jewell.

Nixle, formally known as Community Wire, is a free, subscription-based, online alert and information software program. Designed specifically for local municipalities, emergency agencies and community groups, residents can sign up for the service to get emails or alerts via text message on their cell phone concerning those local organizations they follow.

It’s similar to Twitter, a web-based status update service used by millions of people from pop stars to the President. But Nixle allows the organization to pinpoint who they want to notify of a new alert due to its exclusive geographic-mapping feature.

“We chose Nixle (over Twitter) because it has the most professional platform and it’s designed to target an audience,” said Chris Andrews, information technologist and weather operations team leader with WEMA.

“For example, if there is a tornado that has been spotted and is heading in a certain direction, we can notify people in its path to take shelter,” Andrews said. “But we would have also already notified people of the tornado watches or warnings in their area, too.”

Jewell said WEMA was approached a few months ago by the Wilson County 911 Board to research a way to notify Wilson County residents of weather alerts. Originally, a “reverse 911” program was considered. Reverse 911 works by calling residences in a specific area if there is a safety threat, be it severe weather, a biological hazard or possibly even a manhunt in their neighborhood.

But decision makers at WEMA decided to go with Nixle over a “reverse 911” program for several reasons, they said. First, cost of a reverse 911 program is in the thousands annually, and Nixle is free. Secondly, although many of the third-party agencies that handle reverse 911 calls claim they can reach 100,000 homes in 10 minutes, they county’s phone system could not handle that kind of call volume.

“It’s like trying to force a thousand gallons of water through a quarter-inch pipe,” Jewell said. “It’s just going to take more time than that, maybe as much as a couple hours to call everyone in the county.”

And third, reverse 911 only makes calls to landline-based phones, which many Wilson County residents do not have, Andrews said.

Andrews, who manages WEMA’s information technology and heads the agency’s weather operations team, hopes the service can be added to the current stable of warning methods to reach more people in the event of an emergency.

They considered adding more emergency public address sirens around the county, but at around $15,000 a piece and the necessary addition of as many as 30 new locations countywide, that option wasn’t feasible. And the emergency sirens are not meant to notify people indoors.

Officials can also interrupt broadcasts of local radio station WANT if needed.

But by using all the methods together, they hope to reach the most people possible when they need to.

“There is no silver key to notify everyone,” Jewell added. “This will just be another method to help us reach more.”

“We have put a lot of research into this decision,” Andrews said. “We were just days from promoting our Twitter account when we found out about (Nixle).”

Andrews said they have been testing the limitations of the program for the past two months and are very pleased with its capabilities. He added they were aware of the fact that many Wilson residents already had Twitter accounts, but when testing that program, alerts were often delayed by as much as 24 hours before test subjects received them.

Possibly in the future, the software will be able to use a cell phone’s GPS location to notify the owner of an alert in their vicinity, even if they have not set that location in their profile.

WEMA is not the only Wilson County agency that uses Nixle. The City of Mt. Juliet and the Mt. Juliet Police Department both have been using Nixle for several months to inform and alert Wilson residents of city meetings, traffic and safety concerns.

Jewell said they have presented their research to the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Lebanon agencies in hopes to get them on board as well.

To register a free account and begin receiving alerts, go to www.wilsoncountyema.com and click on the Nixle link. There you can set your notification addresses, such as your home, office or children’s school and specify which type of alert you want to receive; Alerts (most serious), advisories (such as weather advisories), community (news and information) and traffic.

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at zowensby@wilsonpost.com.

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