Fort Smith Upgrades Alert System

Up until recently, the users of Fort Smith’s Blackboard Connect system came from about 27,000 phone numbers picked automatically from the city’s phone records. But because of the shrinking use of landlines, the city has expanded the service to allow users to volunteer their contact information to receive critical alerts.

Fort Smith started using Blackboard Connect in December 2008. The system is used to notify Fort Smith residents about events like major storms, hydrant testing, street closures, changes in trash pickup schedules and so on.

“Our police department has been very innovative in using it to remind people of court dates,” said Tracy Winchell, Fort Smith’s communications manager and the operator of the service.

But there were questions of privacy, causing the city to be reluctant to expand the service.

The city pays Blackboard $67,500 each year to use the system, with the fire department paying $8,572; the police department, $36,855; sanitation, $14,715; and utilities, $7,357.

In early 2013, Blackboard offered to upgrade the service at no cost to the city. The new version could discriminate between different types of users so that undesired information didn’t clog up phones and email addresses. For example, a street closure notice would only go out to residents who lived near that street.

“We give rights to specific employees within each department,” Winchell said. “Each has a level. Some are users; some are super-users. There are about six of us who have access to everything, and that’s mainly in the fire department, the police department and me as a representative of City Hall and the communications manager.”

Each department can work up its own list of notifications, she said. The notifications come through the user’s choice of device. “They have the opportunity to give their name, address and phone number and say ‘Please don’t call me, but I do want an email,’” Winchell said.

In early January, Winchell said, the city began beta testing the service, which was renamed iFortSmithConnect. By April the platform was officially launched. Now, Winchell is working on marketing the platform to Fort Smith residents.

In March, the system had an average of 34 users for each department. By mid-April it rose to about 50 per department; now it’s closer to 80.

Winchell said she hopes the system will attract roughly 500 users per department by the end of the year. The main difficulty, she said, is convincing residents that their data won’t be used for marketing.

Blackboard Inc. itself is based in Washington, D.C., and has more than 9,300 clients in and out of the U.S.; 1,200 of those are professional, corporate, government and military organizations.