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Putting a spin on 911: Law-enforcement agencies embrace reverse system

August 21, 2006

Langsenkamp, CEO of Sigma Micro Corp. in Indianapolis, began conducting research on the patented Reverse 911 Interactive Community Notification System in 1990. The technology, however, didn't hit the market en masse until a decade later.

Today, roughly 350 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada, including those in Carmel and Beech Grove, use it to blast warnings to residents.

"It was the first system that ever allowed people to dial phone numbers and deliver messages based on the geography of where the businesses and people resided," Langsenkamp said.

The software uses a combination of voice mail and Geographic Information Systems mapping technologies to deliver outbound notifications through telephone lines. The system can target specific geographic locations and saturate them with numerous calls every hour. Communities use Reverse 911 for situations ranging from abductions to weather alerts.

Perhaps its most prominent use came on 9/11, when terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon. The city of Arlington, Va., is a Reverse 911 user and employed the system to summon emergency units to the scene.

Despite the tragic circumstances, Langsenkamp said the company was thrilled to participate in such a positive way.

Langsenkamp, 47, is an Indianapolis native who got an industrial management degree from Purdue University in 1981. But it was his computer science minor that served him well.

He launched Sigma Micro in April 1982 after spending a year in the computing department at a local real estate development firm. Unmarried and living at home, Langsenkamp said, he took the plunge because a steady paycheck was less important at the time.

The company that has grown to 130 employees was founded to develop systems for catalog companies and direct merchants. It since has morphed into targeting e-commerce and home-shopping companies.

Out of that firm sprung sister company Sigma Communications LLC, which houses Reverse 911 operations. It employs about 60 and has sustained 50-percent annual growth in revenue for several years, Langsenkamp said.

The first major attempt to commercialize the technology came in 1995. But the endeavor "limped" along until 2000, when he brought in a management team to grow operations and separate them from Sigma Micro, which was taking most of Langsenkamp's time.

"It was an idea that had immediate acceptance," he said of Reverse 911. "But with any new product there is hesitancy."

The Beech Grove Police Department sought the system in 1993 after repeatedly responding to calls from residents concerned about smells emanating from a local chemical company. While they never presented a hazard, the police chief at the time wondered how the department would notify citizens in the event of an evacuation, said Bud Templin, then-director of communications.

"You can call the area versus the people, that's what attracted the chief to it," Templin said. "At the time, you could get lists of people, but you couldn't call them by the street or area they lived in."

The police department continues to use the technology, even to alert residents about road construction, and has integrated the available upgrades.

Langsenkamp, who holds five patents to the technology and has another five applications pending, dismisses the competition.

"There are imitators," he said, "but there are clearly things they cannot do that we can. We are the largest installed base for public-notification systems."
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