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One Day, Sensors Could Text You Directly If You're Near A Flood Zone

Vladimir Wrangel/

In the next few years, the federal government might send you customized emergency alerts depending on how close you are to a disaster. 

The Department of Homeland Security is currently experimenting with technology that could do that in the event of a flood, connecting a network of water-level sensors to a text-based emergency alert system that can identify which smartphone users are closest to an impending flood. Recipients might be first responders or members of the public. 

The six to 12-month research project, run out of the department's Science and Technology Directorate, would generally test out the feasibility of such a system, program manager Denis Gusty told Nextgov

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DHS is funding three small companies to design the sensors through its Small Business Innovation Research program; a New Hampshire-based startup called Ping4 has been awarded a contract to build out the messaging system. Currently, interested users must download the Ping4 alert app to receive locally relevant notifications. 

No other federal programs have set up such a network, at least as far as Gusty knows, he said. "We don't know what some of the pitfalls are," he said. The research phase is meant to elucidate what those pitfalls could be—whether outsiders could infiltrate the app and gather information about users, whether the system could be falsely triggered, and whether sensors might be activated by something other than water levels rising or dropping. 

In its final form, the flood warning system might resemble the earthquake early warning system, and might be compatible with the technology supporting FirstNet, the plan for a broadband network designed specifically for first responders, Gusty said. But a nationwide network of sensors constantly gathering information and automatically sending notifications to the public might never actually happen, he predicted. 

After the program exits the research phase, Gusty said DHS would likely find a flood-prone area to pilot the sensor program. That place would need to be able to set up sensors, quickly gather data from those sensors and then process it.  

Being able to send sensor data back to a "central command" is a key requirement for any area hoping to set up such a system. "Once we're comfortable with the message content or the data being transferred back to central command, the next stage would ... be to get the content in readable form to the end user." 

Ping4's messaging system can currently send out about 200,000 messages per minute, but is designed to scale up to about 1 million per minute, Jim Bender, the startup's chief executive and founder, told Nextgov. This research project is Ping4's first federal contract, though it has worked with state and local groups. 

Bender emphasized that Ping4's alert products don't collect information about the users other than their immediate location. Users would opt into the alert system by downloading the app.

Ping4 is a "rule-based system," Bender explained. If a fire department uses it, a report about a nearby fire might only go to the relevant first responders. But if in the event of a terrorist attack near a landmark, the users closest to the attack might receive a notification, he said. 

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