Reading's new Community Alert System, or RCA, as it is being called, isn’t exactly Facebook or Twitter, but it could be a significant step toward better communication between local government and those of us who live or work in Town.
How Town Hall will utilize RCA will likely unfold gradually. Will it simply become another version of EDline, the system used by the schools to keep parents informed, or a modern variation on the now defunct Emergency Broadcast System notifying us of important public safety issues such as hazardous weather conditions?
Ideally RCA will become something more—something that engages the community in the workings of local government and town activities?
RCA is a straight-forward, easy to use system that allows individuals to sign up at the Town’s Homepage on the Web. The system provides users with just about every imaginable option to receive notices, from text messages to emails to cell phone calls or a call to a good old-fashioned home phone.
One of RCA’s initial, apparent shortcomings is that it does not appear to let you talk back to Town Officials as one can with social media like Twitter or Facebook. It would be a shame if it stays that way for long.
In most emergency situations, it’s likely enough to have the Town tell us what is going on: A Nor’easter is on it’s way, emergency parking bans are in effect; There is a record-breaking heat-wave, check on elderly neighbors. Indications are the Town may also use RCA for convenience purposes: Your water bill is due, don’t forget to send a check; or, fire hydrants are being flushed, don’t do the laundry.
All of that is great, but it falls short of what we have come to expect in the age where Tweeting and Facebook posts are daily events for many and the public is growing more and more accustomed to having an ongoing dialogue, in nearly real-time, with those organizations that are important to them with the tools to do so at their finger tips.
Imagine if RCA allowed citizens to report a pothole directly to the Department of Public Works and allowed the DPW to respond to the notification to let the sender know it was received and when they can expect the hole to be filled. How about a situation where the Board of Selectmen uses RCA to make sure that they are getting the entire community’s input on an important piece of Town policy? RCA could even be used to promote Town events like the Fall Street Faire.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which are free, Town is paying for the software used to run RAC. And, while there are many good reasons to use a commercial solution like the one the Town purchased it, also means the system will, at the very least, need to meet the expectations for usefulness set by the wildly popular social media sites available on the Internet.
After all, communication is at its best when it flows both ways.