Twitter has launched a new emergency alert system that lets authorized agencies such as the police, fire department and other aid workers send messages to users in times of emergency.

Twitter has become an indispensable real-time news and information system for many people, and now the service has added a new element: authorized agencies — including the police, fire department and other emergency workers — can use the company’s new “Alerts” service to send critical messages to users who have signed up to receive them. The system, which marks emergency messages with a small orange bell icon, is similar to one that Twitter set up in Japan in 2011 in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes there.

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