Over Labor Day weekend, wildfires sprouted up around Austin, Texas, and burned for most of the next week. Three fires ignited in the same day, burning more than 300 acres. A section of one Austin suburb, Pflugerville, Texas, was in the path of one of the fires, and local officials went door to door to evacuate 10 homes that were in the greatest danger.

But another couple thousand homes also were in danger, depending on the direction the wildfire took. Residents were desperate for information, according to Teri Wagonner, the town’s public-information officer. “They could smell the smoke,” Waggoner said.

That didn’t necessarily mean that they were in imminent danger — wildfires can be highly unpredictable and can change directions abruptly depending on terrain and wind conditions. But they clearly needed to know what was going on; nothing feeds anxiety more than a dearth of information during an emergency. The problem was that the local news media were focused on the wildfires that were threatening Austin, the state capital and the region’s cultural center. Fortunately for Pflugerville officials and the town’s residents, the town about a year ago had subscribed to Nixle’s hosted information service that connects government agencies to residents.

Pflugerville had been using the service for everyday communications such as water-boil orders and road closure alerts due to traffic accidents, and some that were not so every day, such as a school lockdown. But the real test came when the wildfires appeared, and the system worked beautifully, Waggoner said. The fact that Nixle alerts are transmitted over commercial wireless networks — which many public-safety officials fear because such networks tend to be unreliable during emergencies — didn’t bother Waggoner at all. In fact, leveraging a commercial network was a plus, she said.

“The big thing is that the alerts go to cell phones,” Waggoner said. “The problem with reverse 911 is that people often aren’t home, especially during the day. But just about everyone these days carries their cell phones with them 24/7.”

Pflugerville hedged its bets by also using social media and its website to communicate with residents during the crisis. “We use all of the methods at our disposal,” Waggoner said. But clearly, Nixle resonated with the town’s officials. It also resonated with residents. Prior to the wildfires, about 1,000 residents had subscribed to the service. In the immediate aftermath, subscriptions jumped. “It turned out that the wildfires presented a great opportunity to get people to sign up,” Waggoner said.

Government agencies that are leveraging Nixle — which includes the Chicago Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the San Diego Police Department — use the service for everyday communications as well. Low-priority communications are sent via e-mail, while high-priority communications are sent via text to cell phones. The texts are similar to those disseminated via Twitter, with a few key differences, according to Eric Liu, the company’s CEO. First, government agencies aren’t limited to 140 characters. Second, agencies can attach pictures and maps, which are quite helpful in emergencies, particularly those that involve evacuations. Third, the communications are one-way.

“What’s different between us and Twitter is that Twitter was built for friends to communicate, and Nixle was built for government agencies,” Liu said.

He added that public-safety agencies need not fear that Nixle leverages commercial networks. “We reserve a pipe into each of the cellular carriers, and that’s how we make sure that our pipe is clear,” Liu said. “That’s how we ensure that we get our message into the carrier. Now, there’s no guarantee that the carrier will be able to send out that message. But if look at the history of disasters, text messaging has stayed reliable in almost every situation, because it is so bandwidth-efficient. So, if you can get your message into the carrier, you’re in good shape, because even when voice goes down, text tends to stay up.”

The text and e-mail service is free to government agencies. Nixle also offers two fee-based services. One is designed to let agencies communicate internally with personnel via text and e-mail. “Not everyone is issued a radio, and of those who are, not everyone carries it all of the time,” Liu said. “In fact, more and more they prefer to use their cell phones.”

Also available is a reverse 911 service. Liu said that there is an important advantage of this form of communication. “Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there today that still don’t know how to text message,” Liu said. “This is especially true of the elderly and people with special needs, who often are the ones who need to hear an emergency message the most.”

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