Emergency notification tool helps soldiers at home and in Iraq

Mass notification software supports Army forces at their home base in the U.S. and in the Middle East.

The U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division is using a network-centric emergency mass notification system to support its troops in the United States and Iraq.

The technology, AtHoc IWSAlerts, rapidly sends alerts via an IP network to all connected computer workstations. Alerts can include pop-up, audio and visual cues that describe the threat and include instructions for taking appropriate action. They also feature response options for two-way communications between personnel and operators. The system delivers alerts as SMS text messages to cell phones and e-mail messages to computers and handheld devices such as BlackBerrys.

The system operates on the Defense Department’s secure and non-secure IP networks. The Army is using the technology in-theater to notify personnel of severe weather, enemy attacks and other threats, according to Army officials.

Related coverage:

Coast Guard updates portal to keep pace with Gulf oil spill response

Army research lab to deploy emergency alert system

At Fort Riley, Kan. — the 1st Infantry's home base — the AtHoc servers are installed on the Army’s networks and the client software is pushed to all computers on the Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network, said Ward Philips, chief of plans and emergency management at the base’s Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security. Partner organizations that are not part of the Fort Riley network can have the software installed through direct coordination between their own and the base’s network administrators, he added.

The software reaches 95 percent of the base’s business computer network. Philips said the software client allows the operations center to send alerts to each computer and captures e-mail addresses for each user with a network account.

The base operations center also has the ability to send alerts via e-mail. Users who have entered personal e-mail addresses, cell phone information and phone numbers can also receive alerts via any of those routes.

Army personnel can target specific groups by querying the databases for code, organization or housing neighborhood to refine who gets the alert messages, Philips said. The system also allows managers to build groups for designated personnel and target messages to particular groups, he added.

The earliest version of the AtHoc desktop alert system was put in place at Fort Riley in 2005, Philips said. Initially only about half the business computer networks on the post could be reached by the alert system. An expansion last year increased that number to 95 percent and broadened the means by which alerts can be sent, he said.

The post had previously supported a separate voice alert dialing system that was more operator-intensive to maintain, he said. It includes a tornado siren that is still the primary alert system for severe weather.

In 2006, the Army began installing mass notification voice towers, which allows pre-recorded alerts to be played over the system. The base also uses e-mail notifications to alert personnel. Philips said that all those processes continue to be used together because each can target personnel in different areas with different messages, which serves to quickly contact the entire base’s population.

However, the tornado sirens and mass notification voice towers cannot be heard by personnel inside buildings. Now, with the AtHoc upgrade complete, “we are much more comfortable with our ability to reach all of our population in the event a fast-moving tornado is threatening the installation,” he said.