People in the Wellington region are being encouraged to sign up for a free Red Cross hazard phone app, as they can longer receive text messages through Twitter alerting them to emergencies.
Wellington regional civil defence manager Bruce Pepperell said the text message system was no longer available to all phone users after Vodafone pulled out of the system.
He said the regional emergency team had been piggy-backing off the existing system, which allowed them to send Twitter notifications that were delivered as text messages to users.
But now they had adopted a free Red Cross app that sends people notifications on their phones.
"We discovered that Red Cross have an international alerting app, and so we worked with them to Kiwi-ise it - to tailor it for the New Zealand environment.
"This app, if you download it, will allow you to get alerts through a number of different mechanisms."
The notifications pop up on cellphone home screens like those from other apps, and Mr Pepperell said people could customise their notifications.
"If you sign up for the storm alert, then MetService will send you a little text every time it's 120km/h wind or above. Now, if you're a keen yachtie, then that's also a good thing to have."
The app also allows emergency management officials to send out push alerts that will reach everyone who has downloaded the app, and they can be tailored for a particular area.
"If there was a toxic gas cloud in Thorndon I can put a ring around Thorndon and everybody who's got that app will get the alert."
He said it was a much better tool than anything else available, and he believed other regions were also taking it up.
Mr Pepperell said Wellington Civil Defence would also continue to provide updates via social media, including Twitter and Facebook.
The cost of developing the app had been covered by Red Cross, he said. It works only on Apple and Android smartphones.
National alerting system some time off
Although the Ministry of Civil Defence was working on a national alerting message system, that could take some time, Mr Pepperell said.
"They're working on ... acquiring a system called cell broadcasting, which means that if they send a message it will just cut into everybody's phone and give them that message."
The emergency management director for the Ministry of Civil Defence, Sarah Stuart-Black, said it was important to have a variety of ways of contacting people in an emergency, including radio, websites and social media.
While local emergency management teams were responsible for communicating to their own regions, the ministry was looking at a new system that would send messages to people in a certain geographic area without recipients needing to sign up for the service.
"This is different to a 'pull' system such as an app, which requires people to download the app and subscribe to the service before they can benefit from it," she said.