Telephones started ringing all across the city and people answering the call from City Hall heard a recorded message from City Manager Tom Ginter.
He announced that the breakdown had put one of the city’s two clarifiers out of commission and that repairs were expected to take some time. Meanwhile, the city’s water treatment capacity was cut in half.
Ginter then requested that city residents reduce water consumption by avoiding lawn watering and vehicle washing.
All this was accomplished using a new, mass communications system for the city.
Blackboard Connect is a web-based system that allows mass communications without the users having to purchase expensive hardware, said Bee County Emergency Coordinator David Morgan.
“There are a number of different services out there,” Morgan said recently. “This (Blackboard Connect) is just the one that we chose because we, the city and the county, thought it was best for us.”
Morgan sold the City Council on joining the system months ago. The cost is only about $8,000 a year. Ginter believes the notification system offers the best bang for the buck.
“It allows the city and county to communicate automatically with all phone customers and e-mail users,” Ginter said.
The water treatment emergency was the first opportunity the city had to use the system, Ginter said.
Out of the city’s approximately 5,000 water customers, Blackboard Connect contacted 3,099 of them. Of those, the system confirmed that most of the messages were successfully delivered.
That means that someone on the other end of the line from the city’s phone system actually heard the message.
“Our goal should be 80-90 percent,” Ginter said. “You never reach 100 percent of the people.”
One of the problems with the 21st century technology is that many telephone users no longer have land line connections. They depend entirely on cellular phones for their telephone service.
Morgan said the county is already using the Blackboard Connect system. But it also is connected only to land line phone numbers.
Both city and county residents who depend on cellular phones, SMS text messaging and Internet connections for their communication needs will have to contact the Bee County Courthouse or City Hall to provide contact numbers and addresses.
With that information, many more people can be connected to the system.
Anyone who has Internet access may provide those connection links by logging onto the web pages of the City of Beeville or Bee County.
Each of the web sites has an icon that can be clicked to connect the resident with the link where cell phone numbers, and e-mail addresses can be logged into the system.
Morgan said the county has a “Public Portal” icon that computer users can click to obtain the link.
City Hall has a similar link on its site.
“People who have been here a long time and have had a home phone are probably already in the system,” Ginter said.
Cell phone users who have no Internet service may call City Hall or the courthouse to provide cellular phone numbers over the telephone.
Ginter said even people who still use pagers can have those numbers written into the system.
Ginter said Blackboard Connect can be used in a wide variety of ways to inform the public.
Messages could be sent out to inform residents of the location of emergency shelters if the county is hit by a hurricane, and warnings can be sent out regarding mechanical problems like the water plant breakdown. The system allows residents in a certain neighborhood to be contacted in the event of a power failure, and the city and county could notify residents of important meetings.
Ginter said Blackboard Connect originated in school systems around the country as a way to inform parents of campus closings and important school events. The system then became popular with local governments and some utility companies over the years.
Morgan said the Beeville Independent School District uses a similar system that is part of the Blackboard Connect service.
“We need people to sign up,” Ginter said. “When there is an emergency such as a hurricane, you’ll get a call or e-mail to notify you of that.” The system can also notify residents of street closings or announce special events.
“The next step is two-way,” Ginter said. That would allow residents who are connected to the system to contact the city or county the same way.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.