The City of Altoona may subscribe to an emergency alert service for its residents.
Whatever its other qualities, Nixle has one outstanding characteristic - it's free to the city.
It also has a glaring limitation: It doesn't send voice messages over landlines. Rather, it sends only text messages and e-mails to those who sign up to receive them, while making Web site information available to anyone with an Internet connection.
City Council member Bruce Kelley, a member of a committee that has been evaluating notification systems, will demonstrate Nixle to the council at a September meeting. He said Wednesday that the city expected to pay perhaps $15,000, so it's heartening to find the service is available for nothing.
Kelley said he learned about the Mount Laurel, N.J.-based company from Police Chief Janice Freehling, who received a flyer in the mail.
The 2-year-old firm launched the service nationwide in March and has registered 2,100 agencies, said Bonnie Miller, Nixle's senior director of operations.
Cities using the service include Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Baltimore and Minneapolis-St. Paul. It can take as little as a day or two to get a city online, Miller said.
The service provides emergency alerts, traffic advisories, general advisories and community news, with briefs coming by text and full messages by e-mail and online. Subscribing agencies can direct messages to particular areas, specifying the size of those areas by adjusting the radius from an address.
Baltimore's current list of notifications includes alerts about a shooting, an accident and the hot weather.
Residents get the notices for free, except where cell phone plans require them to pay for individual texts. They can specify agencies and types of messages they want and the method by which they receive them.
While it must collect personal information like addresses and phone numbers from users, it doesn't provide the information to third parties, other than the agencies from whom they receive messages - and those agree not to use the information for commercial purposes, the company said.
"It sounds fabulous," council member Matt Garber said before asking why the service doesn't include landline messages.
"That's a problem," Kelley admitted.
"It wasn't part of how we built our product," Miller explained.
Besides, landlines are part of an old-fashioned way of doing things, she said.
If there had to be a choice between the two types of phone contact, cell phones have the advantage, because people take them wherever they go, she said.
People who do have cell phones can call those who don't on landlines when they receive a critical alert, Freehling said, explaining that her mother doesn't have a cell phone or computer.