If you haven't heard of Nixle, picture a no-nonsense version of Facebook or Twitter that spreads the word about serious matters.
"A couple of weeks ago, we had a missing child, a 7-year-old boy," said North Huntingdon police Chief Andrew Lisiecki. "We sent a Nixle message out and actually had volunteers arrive at the scene and search the area for the boy."
A little while later, those who had been following the proceedings were greeted with the best possible news: "Christopher has been located, no longer missing."
The North Huntingdon police department is one of many public safety, school and governmental agencies in the Pittsburgh region that have enrolled in Nixle, a free online service that provides a trustworthy means of disseminating information.
"Often times, you'll hear about spoof accounts for police departments that start sending out messages," Nixle spokesman James Gatta said.
"When police departments, fire departments, EMS come to us to start an account, we verify that they're who they say they are."
Unlike some of the more popular social media services, Nixle requires proof of credentials and identification, and the company's staff members make telephone calls for further authentication.
"We want to make sure that they're not some prankster from the town who's going to set up one of these 'spoof' accounts," Mr. Gatta said.
Once an agency's account is verified and activated, it can start sending messages to subscribers through text messages, emails and Web updates. Many communities, such as North Huntingdon, provide links from their own websites.
Subscribing is a relatively simple process through www.nixle.com. Provide your name, email address and, if you'd like to receive texts, cell phone number. Nixle also requests a home address to tailor information to specific neighborhoods.
Once your account is established, search for nearby agencies and subscribe to as many as you'd like. You always can unsubscribe.
Nixle is designed to send four types of messages, depending on the severity of the situation: alerts, advisories, community information and localized traffic reports.
"If there's an accident that shuts down Route 30, which happens occasionally, this lets us deliver the message," Mr. Lisiecki said. "It lets people know there's an emergency situation and also what detours are posted."
His department was among the many in the Northeast that prepared to send information about problems related to Superstorm Sandy.
"Fortunately, there were only a couple of flooded streets and at one time 500 people were without power," he said.
The biggest North Huntingdon news to go through Nixle: "When Halloween was canceled, we immediately let people know."
Nixle launched its service in southern California in the spring of 2009. According to Mr. Gatta, more than 6,000 agencies and 1 million subscribers are registered to use the service nationwide.
"Security is very important to us," he said, "because at the end of the day, we work hand-in-hand with these public safety officials and we want them to be able to sleep at night."
Harry Funk, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.