Picayune launches Blackboard Connect to improve emergency preparedness and communication

Published 2:22 pm Thursday, October 29, 2009

A test call is planned on Thursday using a new communication system to ensure residents are ready to receive messages during future emergencies.

The City of Picayune is launching the Blackboard Connect mass notification platform to enhance community-wide communication and emergency preparedness. Picayune has installed the Blackboard Connect platform so that city officials can directly notify, update and provide direction to the community in an efficient, timely manner, should a need arise, officials say.

With Blackboard Connect, officials expect to be able to record, send and track personalized voice messages to thousands of residents, businesses, and local agencies in just minutes with a single telephone call. The city also expects to be able to send text messages to cell phones, PDAs, e-mail accounts, and TTY/TDD receiving devices for the hearing impaired.

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“Blackboard Connect is a multi-modal communication tool that will enhance our ability to rapidly disseminate important messages to residents,” said Picayune Fire Chief Keith Brown. “We can use Blackboard Connect across the board. Should we need to notify the entire community of a time-sensitive situation or an upcoming city event, or if we’d like to send out utility reminders to specific groups, we are now prepared to do so quickly and efficiently.”

Calls will begin going out at 8:30 a.m. to city employees, Brown said. Businesses tentatively will be called starting at 4 p.m. At about 6 p.m., calls will be made to residences. Brown said the reason behind the varying time frames is to call the businesses during their slow time and homes just before people sit down to dinner, but late enough to ensure they are at home. Brown said those times may vary depending on unforeseen circumstances.

City administrators say they can target each message to an unlimited number of groups — everything from mobilizing emergency response teams to coordinating efforts with necessary agencies or volunteers. Authorized users also can use a map on the Blackboard Connect system to contact specific geographical locations, sending messages only to the residents within select neighborhoods when needed.

“In time-sensitive situations, it’s pertinent that we be able to notify and provide instructions to residents quickly, whether they are at home, work or en route,” Brown said. “Residents who have publicly listed phone numbers are already included in the system, but this does not necessarily include their private phone lines, cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses, which is why it’s important for everyone to add their correct contact information into the Blackboard Connect database.”

Notifications can be sent to alert people of emergencies such as a major fire, train derailment or inclement weather. The messages will include information about the emergency and whether residents need to stay home or evacuate, and if alternate exit routes are recommended during an evacuation.

Good news also can be spread using the system, including community events such as a barbecue or the street fair, Brown said. In the future the city will look into using the system to alert residents if they have a past due utility bill or have fines owed to the city.

“We can call you ahead of time and let you know you got an old fine sitting out there but that’s still in the process,” Brown said.

Residents can provide complete contact information, which may include up to three phone numbers and two e-mail addresses, and indicate if they have a TTY/TDD device, by submitting the information to the city’s web site at www.picayune.ms.us and clicking on the “SIGN UP NOW – SERVICES BY BLACKBOARD CONNECT,” link. The information goes into the secure database. Residents without Internet access can add their information to the system by calling city hall at (601) 798-9770. Residents with call blocking services should add 601-798-9770, the number of the city’s main switchboard, to their approved number list.

“The best way to keep residents informed, and therefore safe, is through communication, and the Blackboard Connect platform makes it easy,” said Karl Engkvist, executive vice president of Blackboard Connect. “With the Blackboard Connect platform, administrators have a powerful tool to communicate quickly and efficiently with their community, without having to purchase new computers, software and telephone lines.”

The Blackboard Connect platform allows officials to send thousands of messages in minutes, requires no additional hardware, and can be used from any computer with Internet access or from any telephone. This ensures that administrators can send vital messages from wherever they are located — even if they have been evacuated to a location outside of the city. Additionally, officials receive detailed reports on contacts that did not receive a message, enabling them to follow up through alternative means as needed. Brown said the system provides him with a list of the homes where people answered and listened to the message, as well as lists of homes where people either hung up or did not answer.

This system has been chosen over other mass notification systems, such as reverse 911, due to its low cost and ease of use. Brown said the city will pay about $1.90 per home, or $8,000, a year, for unlimited use of the service. He said that expense is less than using the reverse 911 service, especially since there is no equipment to purchase and maintain.

For more information on the Blackboard Connect platform, visit http://www.blackboard.com/Alert-Notification/Connect-Platform.aspx or contact the company at (818) 808-1789.