Tulsa will soon follow the lead of other local municipalities by setting up a mass notification system for use in emergencies, although city officials believe the system has a number of other applications that have the potential for increasing citizen engagement in city government.
Bids for the equipment to run the system were due April 6, and Terry O'Malley, the project manager for the city, said the goal is to have the system up and running by fall. Several of Tulsa's neighbors -- Sand Springs, Owasso and Broken Arrow -- already have such systems in place, she noted, as do a number of local school districts.
The system would enable the city to automatically contact city employees and citizens through a variety of media -- telephone calls, text messages and emails -- with a prerecorded or written message. O'Malley said many vendors have advertised the capacity to send 1.8 million text or email messages per hour and 3.2 million 60-second voice messages per hour.
The system would be used primarily to help spread information during emergencies in a speedy and efficient manner through a so-called "blast." But Tulsa's system also could be used for other applications, such as helping city officials recruit volunteers for different tasks, notifying citizens of changes to their trash pickup schedule or alerting residents of certain neighborhoods of impassable roads in their area in the event of flooding, snow and ice, or street resurfacing.
"This would have been great for the snowstorm of (December) 2007," O'Malley said of the storm that left power lines down all over the city when ice-laden tree branches came crashing down, blocking streets for days. "And even in the recent blizzard (in January), we could have told people where the plows were or 'Don't come downtown.'"
City officials are particularly excited about the system's potential for increasing citizen involvement in public safety. If a rash of burglaries or violent crimes has been committed in a particular neighborhood, the mass notification system will provide police with a quick and efficient way of alerting residents of that fact -- and to solicit their help in identifying suspects.
Citing feedback from a recent citizen survey, the administration of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. has stressed the need to improve communication with Tulsa residents. The mayor believes the planned mass notification system is an efficient way of doing that.
"Our citizens live in a world of instant messages, emails and cell phones," he said in a statement. "It is difficult and ineffective to reach many of them using traditional methods of mail and land-line phones. A mass notification system will improve our chances of successfully reaching Tulsans using the communication devices they prefer. It will empower our citizens to take appropriate action in emergencies and invite them to partake in municipal services in which they are interested."
The equipment is expected cost between $150,000 and $170,000, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security funding will be used to cover the cost of its operation for the first year. O'Malley said Tulsa officials have been interested in installing such a system for the last 10 years, but Ben Stout, the chief information officer for the project, said it was a good thing the city waited until now to move forward.
"This equipment cost $500,000 originally," he said. "Now we think we can do it for somewhere around $150,000."
Implementation of the system is likely to result in some cost savings for a number of city departments, O'Malley said, citing Tulsa Police as an example.
"Say they have problems staffing a shift," she said. "Instead of a guy sitting at a desk calling for several hours, he just needs to push a button."
The system would automatically call, email or text off-duty officers to inquire if they were available to work and would be deactivated as soon as the desired number of officers had been secured, she said.
The same system could be put to use to solicit volunteer help for cleaning up parks, she said.
It also will eliminate much of the need for traditional mailings or "door hangers" in which personnel go house-to-house in a neighborhood and hang a notice about a given subject on residents' doorknobs.
Tulsans will not automatically receive such alerts once the system is installed, Stout said, explaining that residents will need to go to the city's website and subscribe. They will receive a number of options for how they want to be notified -- land line, cell phone, text messaging, email or all of the above -- and what type of activities they want to be notified about, such as requests for volunteers, crime alerts, meeting notices, etc.
"Citizens can't opt out of emergency messaging, but they can opt out of non-emergency messaging," Stout said.
A number of restrictions will be placed on how and when the system can be used, O'Malley said, adding that those who sign up for the service won't need to worry about receiving a 3am phone call seeking the city's help in graffiti abatement. Nor will the system be used for political purposes, she said.
But the mass notification system could be used to help city officials gauge public sentiment on a number of issues, she said, noting that it has the capacity to be used for surveys, providing quick feedback. It also could be used to alert residents of City Council wards about a town hall meeting. City officials hope that application will result in greater citizen engagement.
"They'll be able to voice their opinion more regularly on specific subjects," O'Malley said.
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