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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Social media benefiting Merrimack police

MERRIMACK - Just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, a caller reported to Merrimack police that two little girls were missing.

The girls, both 7, had been playing in a yard on Baboosic Lake Road and hadn't been seen in 30-45 minutes.

Police responded and, within minutes, had calls flooding into the station from people who had spotted the girls. Less than an hour after the original call, the girls were located nearby, safe and sound.

It was only a few years ago, before the explosion of Facebook, Twitter and smartphones, that the police response would have been much different.

As part of the search, Merrimack Police Chief Mark Doyle posted the information about the missing girls on Nixle, a Web-based notification service for which residents can sign up at no cost. Nixle sent emails and text messages to its users and posted the update to the department's Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The results were instantaneous.

"Once those messages went out, the dispatch center got flooded with phone calls," Doyle said. "Getting the information out as soon as possible is critical."

Just 10 years ago, the search would have taken much more time, manpower and money. Using Nixle has now become a routine part of the process when information needs to get out to residents immediately.

"It would be more of a long, drawn-out, time-consuming process," Doyle said. "The missing piece in 2002 is the ability to get the information out right away."

The girls were missing for 47 minutes from the time of the first call, according to police.

Dozens of agencies in New Hampshire use Nixle -

about 80 altogether - although only 30 have posted to it in the last six months, according to company spokeswoman Nicole Fait.

Merrimack police are the most prodigious users of Nixle, Facebook and Twitter among local police agencies. Not even a week before the two girls disappeared, police found an 87-year-old man about an hour after he wandered from home, again thanks to Nixle users alerted by email and text message.

Many residents depended on the department's social media postings during "Snowtober," Doyle said, because in many cases, smartphones were their only connection to the outside world.

"So many people are connected now, it's much easier to take advantage of being able to communicate with them right away," Doyle said. "They add another mechanism that we can get important messages out to people quickly, effectively and for free."

All of it adds up to more resources police can put into other areas.

"It saved a lot of time," Doyle said. "It saved a lot of effort and money and resources that we would have had to relegate to that effort. We're really trying to push the Nixle thing and get people to sign up."

In the case of the missing girls last week, Merrimack police didn't have time to deploy the typical search tactics they would have used a few years ago, and still use if missing persons aren't found quickly.

Instead of flooding the area with officers, calling in a K9 unit, canvassing neighborhoods a house at a time and then meticulously searching the area, the patrol supervisor on duty who responded to the home from which the girls disappeared first called the station with the basic information about the girls.

He reported what police were able to find out quickly, including the girls' ages, description, clothing and where they were last seen.

Doyle then tapped "A Child Is Missing," a Florida-based nonprofit that made a reverse 911 call to homes on Baboosic Lake Road to notify residents that two girls were missing. It was at that point that Doyle sent the message out via Nixle.

Several people had seen the girls. One caller reported spotting them on Tanglewood Way. Family members and police quickly found the girls behind a house on that street, which is connected to Baboosic Lake Road by a small wooded area.

You can sign up for the free Nixle alerts at Nixle.com and download a free phone app on iTunes. You can also register your cellphone at www.achildismissing.orgto get reverse 911 calls, police said.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).