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Galax police launch info system

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By April Wright, Reporter

Most text messages or Twitter alerts are pretty mundane — what someone's having for lunch or when to meet up for dinner or a movie.

But what if an alert in your inbox warned you of a criminal on the loose in your neighborhood, the approach of a dangerous storm or a street closing?

The Galax Police Department has launched a new Community Information Service designed to deliver important and timely information to residents using the latest technology.

This free service, created by Nixle, delivers trustworthy and important neighborhood-level public safety information, such as traffic and weather bulletins, crime information and other updates, and community event notifications by Web, e-mail and text messages.

Community information can be delivered for up to a 20-mile radius, and people can sign up for the level of notifications they wish to receive.

“They may not want community events or weather reports,” said Galax Police Capt. James Cox. “So they can decide what they want to sign up for so they're not getting bombarded with alerts.”

Nixle is a new community information service provider built exclusively to provide secure and reliable communications. It connects municipal agencies and community organizations to residents in real time, delivering geographically targeted information.

Nixle is offered at no cost to all governments, their agencies and organizations, non-governmental organizations and consumers.

“The more people subscribe, the more effective the police department will be,” said Galax Police Chief Rick Clark. “This is a rapid way to disseminate information.”

The Galax Police Department receives multiple calls each day from people seeking community information. This new system will save those people a phone call, said Clark. It will provide such as information as “the fireworks start at 11, there's no garbage pickup on holidays or the carnival has been cancelled.”

He said the department had looked at another notification system, but it would have cost the city “five figures a year,” he said. “And this is affordable for us right now.”

For now, Galax residents will be able to receive police-related information and municipal government information via Nixle. Channels providing other kinds of information are expected to be introduced in the future.

Craig Mitnick, the founder and CEO of Nixle, said it differs from services such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, which provide unauthenticated platforms for connections. Nixle solves that problem by providing a single standardized service for consumers to receive immediate — and credible — neighborhood-level public safety and community information.

“Nixle is a first-of-its-kind tool for communities that need to provide critical information to their residents,” said Mitnick. “When it comes to public safety information, you have to trust the source. Residents of Galax can rest easy that the local messages they receive are authentic.”

Clark said residents will receive information on crimes, crime prevention tips, wanted individuals and traffic concerns, to name a few.

Recent posts at the site included a warning that Main Street traffic would be congested on Aug. 2 due to fiddlers' convention traffic, a street closing notification and a notice about a controlled propane burn on Railroad Avenue — “flames may be visible for several days” — that assured residents it was a planned event and not an accident.

“The department will be able to alert residents of incidents ranging from burglaries in their neighborhoods to streets that are closed. If officers are searching for a suspect in an area of the city, we can send messages to those residents alerting them of the activity,” Clark said.

“This service can help empower the citizens to assist us in apprehending criminals and preventing crime. It can also help protect officers by alerting residents they are in the area.”

As another initiative, and at no cost to the community, the Galax Police Department has decided to provide the public with the statistics the department gathers. People can now visit crimereports.com, click on “Galax,” and a map of the city will be displayed, showing when and where the crime happened and the type of crime committed.

A check of the site on Friday revealed a detailed Google map with pinpoints corresponding to a list of recent crimes, the date, time and address. The list included several assaults, a theft of motor vehicle parts, a vehicle theft, a few shoplifting incidents and two breaking-and-entering cases.

Users also can check out the statistics by clicking “Analytics” and then using the drop-down menu to choose “Galax Police Department.” Line and bar graphs and pie charts will be shown, covering the past few days and the number of crimes that have occurred.

“We're also looking at software to help us identify the hotspots in the area, so we can pay special attention to that,” said Clark.

The police department is also working on software programs to make it more efficient. Right now, each officer has a laptop in their car to view driver's license images, see mug shots and talk from car to car online, allowing them to share private information that can't be broadcast over a police scanner.

All of this, Cox said, is to make it so officers don't have to leave patrolling to come back to the office.

“[These projects] are a way to make us more responsive to certain situations and make us more cost-efficient,” said Clark.

• Visit nixle.com to sign up, or see the Galax Police Department's site at galaxpd.org, which contains a link to the site.