The city's winter parking ban ended on Sunday, and in true April Fool's fashion, a light dusting of snow threatened the weekend forecast -- one last pass in a relatively snow-less winter. The city's annual overnight parking ban, however, is no joke to many a resident.
Residents and city councilors alike have bemoaned the existence of the ban for years, for a number of reasons, and wish the city would do away with it in favor of an emergency alert system when it actually snows, as several other communities in the area do.
The ban is in effect from Dec. 1 to April 1 -- no on-street parking is allowed from 1-6 a.m.
Many a resident no doubt will then be pleased to hear that elimination of the city's winter parking ban is finally in the forecast...after a fashion.
This winter, city councilors asked police officials whether the blue lights installed last winter at key intersections in the city could be used for an emergency notification system -- similar to that used in Salem and Beverly -- and the response from Deputy Police Chief Martin Cohan was simply "yes," in theory.
Cohan said one major change that needed to happen was for to transfer the server over to the police station so the deparment would have round-the-clock access, and the PAT board of directors has already agreed to do that.
The switch would not happen until at least next winter while the investigates how other cities use the blue lights and draft some proposed ordinance changes for the existing parking ban and implementation of the new system.
According to Chief Robert Champagne, however, there is still another major obstacle to progress: upgrading the blue lights to a system with much higher security from hackers and pranksters and which will be expensive unless a cheaper alternative can be found.
"If given a source of funding, sure, it's realistic [to switch over soon]", said Champagne.
He said in a recent interview that his staff is researching some alternatives. The type of wireless technology involved is a known as a mesh network.
"At this point, we have about half a delivery system here," Champagne said.
Champagne said the current system is low-tech enough that on numerous occasions, pranksters have placed their own messages on the radio station and activated the lights. Listeners tuning in, expecting to hear a notice from public safety officials, were instead greeted with announcements for changes in game times for the Red Sox or Celtics.
If the Police Department is going to use the system in place of a parking ban, it needs to have full control over the system, much the same way it has secure control on citywide alerts now via Nixle, Champagne said.
He says his opposition in the past to doing away with the parking ban in favor of a blue light system has always been about the best way to communicate with the most people across the city simultaneously.
He said it wouldn't be fair to impose a system that wouldn't alert everyone to the emergency, but now with the city able to broadcast notices via phone, radio, email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, visually, "that argument kind of goes away."
The blue lights were purchased through a grant and installed at 14 highly trafficked intersections throughout the city. A sign posted below each light directs people to tune their radios to 1640 AM when the lights are flashing.
Currently, the radio system is used in tandem with citywide emergency alerts sent out via Nixle or Connect Ed -- Nixle utilizes social media, email and text messages to warn residents of things such as scams and road closures while Connect Ed is for school-related emergencies and uses email and phone messages.
As for which system actually works better -- annual ban or blue lights, Champagne says he has opinions on both and both have their respective merits.
All that aside, Champagne says the interior of the police station is still undergoing repairs from the flash floods last October, in addition to a roof leak, and he wants to wrap that up before moving in any new equipment. The repairs are scheduled to be finished in April.
Residents get tickets despite no snow
While the existence of the parking ban has long been a source of frustration to residents without a driveway or otherwise enough space to park off the street, those feelings appeared to surface even more this past winter without much snow to justify the ban in their eyes.
The lack of snow also doesn't stop the police from handing out tickets to violators.
Between Dec. 1 and mid-February, which were relatively snowless, the department had already handed out 1,081 tickets to violators of the ban. The year before, which saw a winter plagued by endless snowstorms during that same period, the police handed out 1,080 tickets. The fine is $10.
Champagne did point out that while other cities that use the blue light system were towing hundreds of cars to make way for plows throughout the winter last year, Peabody towed a small fraction of those numbers.