June 10, 2009 By Elaine Rundle
After years of using the phone tree system -- where one person is in charge of calling two people and each of those people must call two more, and so forth -- to spread information, staff at the Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview, Ore., began searching for a better system. Parrish Van Wert, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said a main problem with the phone tree system is misinformation can be dispensed and may travel as quickly as accurate information. He likened it to the "third-grade whisper," where information starts spreading on one end of the classroom and by the time it reaches the other end it's completely different.
The Warner Creek Correctional Facility began working with Vontoo, a Web-based automated voice-messaging system to dispense marketing information, but officials realized it would be a good fit for community notification. Currently the system is being used in two of the correction department's 14 institutions.
Vontoo allows phone numbers to be uploaded to its Web site. Department staff then upload a voice message, select the appropriate call list, and the system calls the phone numbers to relay the message. Van Wert said this lets hundreds of people receive the same information in a matter of minutes.
In Madras, Ore., residents were warily awaiting the opening of the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, which completed construction in December 2007. "I'm a fourth-generation resident [in Madras], and I understand their apprehension about having inmates in their backyard," Van Wert said. "And one of the things that I took very seriously as well as very personally was that if we were to have an emergency here at our facility that the community would be given as much of a heads up as possible and kept in the information stream."
He set up the voice-messaging system in Madras by getting a report from the county assessor's office of the landowners and their addresses and sent them a letter asking if they wanted to be included in the notification system. Residents who wanted to participate signed a release form for their phone numbers to be entered into the system. Van Wert said the institution asks people to renew their participation in the program annually and once a year they check for new property owners.
The system isn't just used for resident notification. Van Wert said it allows users to create tables of phone numbers for different groups. For example, he can program the system to only call high-ranking individuals in the event that an inmate gets transported to the hospital or another incident the community doesn't need to be informed about.
The system also tracks the outgoing phone calls in real time. "You can virtually watch the report generate itself on a Web page about how many phone calls it's made, whether it's contacted a live individual or left a message, and how many times it's attempted to make contact with that number," Van Wert said. The system tries to reach each phone number three times.
Vontoo charges a per phone call fee, which is approximately 10 cents for the Oregon correctional facilities. Van Wert said it's free to upload the phone numbers into tables and users are only charged when the system's activated. "It's having a terrific tool in your toolbox; until you need it, it's just sitting there and doesn't cost you anything," he said. "But when you do need it, it's invaluable."
The Deer Ridge Correctional Institution included the system's procedures in its emergency preparedness plan, Van Wert said. The facility also created multiple tables of phone numbers in Vontoo for various emergencies, like fires, floods and evacuations.
He said the recent H1N1 flu outbreak brought to light more situations that the voice-messaging system could aid the facility in. Although the area didn't have any residents or inmates who contracted the virus, officials realized the system could help keep correctional staff up-to-date on the institution's status.
"When you get down to it, communication is everything -- in an emergency it's everything," Van Wert said. "Without it, all the tools in the world make no difference to how you're going to handle a situation."