City launches new emergency notification service, mobile app

The city is urging Honolulu residents to download its new notification app to receive key alerts should emergencies occur.

HNL Info is available for both iPhone and Android, and offers updates on severe weather alerts, traffic incidents, and other emergency situations.

It was developed in-house by the Department of Information Technology.

“We want to make sure that the people of this island, about a million people who live on the island, and about 100,000 visitors who are on our island on any given day, are prepared for any kind of emergency, whether it be a hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake, or king tide,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

The city has been using the notification service, Nixle, since August 2010 to send out alerts via text messages and emails. Roughly 45,000 residents had signed up for the service.

“Nixle has been doing this program for free for all of us, and we’ve really appreciated it and want to thank Nixle, but they’ve informed they’re going to start charging us for this program,” Caldwell said.

Nixle told the city it would have to start charging one cent per text message. Over time, that charge would have cost the city an estimated $400,000 to $500,000.

“We’re always looking to reduce our costs, to manage our expenses, and (with HNL Info) we’ve come up with a way to do that without having to spend more taxpayer money,” Caldwell said.

HNL Info links: Website | Mobile app on iPhone, Android

There are two ways to receive alerts — download the app and allow for push notifications, or create an online account that can send you text messages and emails.

Alerts are broken down by category (fire, police, road closures, weather, etc.) and urgency (urgent, routine, informational), and you can pick and choose which ones to receive.

You can view the alerts online without creating an account, while the app also offers information on community and city events, including festivals, parades, and hearings.

“It has all the features that Nixle has and a lot more. We also think that the messages will be delivered in a much more timely fashion than with Nixle. We can send out basically hundreds of thousands of messages in under a second,” said Mark Wong, director and chief information officer, Department of Information Technology.

Officials encourage residents to download HNL Info or register online to continue receiving alerts before the city discontinues its Nixle use at the end of the month, and as we head into the Central Pacific Hurricane Season, which begins June 1.

The long-term goal, officials say, is to turn HNL Info into the go-to digital platform for city-related services and transactions. Users will eventually be able to use the app to report things like potholes, broken lights, and more.

“As we develop this HNL.info concept, we anticipate we’re going to have things like renew your driver’s license or motor vehicle registration, online transactions with the city,” Wong said. “We’re really consolidating all the city functions with the public into one site.”

We reached out to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety and the Hawaii Police Department on Hawaii island. Both use the Nixle alert system.

Hawaii County police say it still plans to use Nixle despite the new costs. Meanwhile, DPS will weigh different cost options to determine if its partnership with Nixle will continue.

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