Messaging System Links Texas Residents and Officials

Communities are notified of public health issues, disaster recovery, missing children and more.

by Corey McKenna / May 4, 2010
Greg Henshall/FEMA

[Photo: Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, damaging or destroying every house on this street, which runs along Galveston Bay. Courtesy of Greg Henshall/FEMA.]

The Alvin, Texas, public library was to be the voting site for a city election on April 28, but a two-alarm fire earlier in the morning forced officials to move voting to City Hall. The transition went smoothly, thanks to the city's community notification system that was already in place.

“The particular area where the early voting was talking place suffered smoke damage, so we had to move the early voting to City Hall,” said Capt. Terry Lucas, the city’s emergency management coordinator. The fire and resulting movement of voting demonstrated one of many uses for the notification system.

Alvin has had the system, known as Connect-CTY from Blackboard Connect, in place for two and a half years. The first major use of the system came as Hurricane Ike approached. During the response to the hurricane, Lucas sent 50 messages warning residents of the storm’s approach and informing them of the city’s preparations. Once Ike made landfall, Lucas sent messages letting residents know where and when they could pick up emergency supplies and meet with FEMA representatives.

The notifications provided greater convenience for residents seeking aid. “Letting them know that FEMA aid is now available versus them finding out three or four days later by some other means, I think [we] had a far greater ability to offer the services to the community,” Lucas said.

In addition to notifications during emergencies, the city uses the system to inform residents of public hearings, street closures, city events and missing children. “Public works uses it whenever they’re going to flush hydrants in town in certain regions because you can go in and break the system down throughout your community,” Lucas said.

The city can send up to 30,000 messages to approximately 7,000 households depending on the desired scope of the notification. Priority messages, such as the one prompted by the April 28 fire, are sent to every phone number and e-mail address on the city’s list. General community outreach messages are sent to one phone number per household.

In addition to phone numbers and e-mail addresses, messages can also be posted to a jurisdiction's Twitter and Facebook pages, a Blackboard Connect representative said in an e-mail. 

Based on its performance during Hurricane Ike, residents and elected officials in Alvin see the notification system as invaluable. “From anything anyone has ever heard, all the politicians anybody else, they have said, ‘If times get tough, we will do without a lot of things, but we’re not going to do without this communication process,’” Lucas said.
 
Bill Kerber, city administrator for Kemah, Texas, has had similar experiences. He used the system during preparations and the response to Hurricane Ike and to instruct residents to shelter in place after a chemical plant explosion spread a plume of black smoke across nearby communities.

“At one time I thought I was going to run into a problem during [Hurricane Ike] when I was unable to get to a computer terminal to get out a message,” Kerber said. “But what happened with that situation was I just called Blackboard Connect, spoke with the people there at the office, gave them the information and they put it out from their office for me.”

Both Kemah and Alvin use the system to share messages with adjacent communities. For example, when Galveston County started using the system, Kemah and county officials came to an agreement on what messages would be broadcast by the city and which would come from the county, such as information regarding the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. “The county was putting out great information about where to go get [inoculated], what to be on the lookout for and all those kinds of different things, and there was no use in reinventing that wheel,” Kerber said.

He said he still gets stopped in public and thanked by residents appreciative of the information he provided during Hurricane Ike. “You know, it could have been the mayor, it could have been me, it could have been the city secretary — didn’t make any difference — as long as it was the same person, that gave them some degree of comfort that the message going out was official.”
 

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