St. John goverment gets phone upgrade

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 2, 2009

Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – Residents on the East Bank and West Bank of St. John Parish looking to do business with government offices are just one phone call away, thanks to a new phone system that connects all parish departments.

The $158,000 Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) system was installed two weeks ago, but the St. John Council approved a $67,000 change to the agreement with service provider Blackbox Communications that allows the Department of Public Safety to be a part of the system.

Public Safety Director Paul Oncale told the council that his department originally opted out of the system because of safety concerns during an emergency, but decided to get back in when the department was promised digital phones, which would work during a power outage.

“The VOIP system cannot receive incoming calls during an outage and the public safety department was concerned that it would hinder emergency response,” said St. John Public Information Officer Buddy Boe. “The EOC (Emergency Operations Center) is where we operate during a storm and we need communication that we know won’t go down.”

Boe said the contract change included purchase of 32 phones for the EOC, along with an additional 20 for other locations, including the St. John Community Center and Animal Shelter, which were also added to the system. He said the phones run about $400 a piece.

The phone system, which was approved by the Council at an Aug. 26 meeting, uses data lines instead of conventional phone lines to deliver the service. Boe said the network of lines allows all parish government buildings and departments to operate as one cohesive unit.

“A resident can be transferred between buildings and departments by the push of a button,” said Boe. “Prior to the new phone system, a resident was given various phone numbers for the different parish departments and the resident was forced to hang up and place another call because departments could not transfer.”

Boe said both the East and West banks are connected with a simple transfer allowing residents to call into the main parish line and reach many various departments and separate government agencies. Included in the new system are the St. John Clerk of Court, Assessor, Judges Offices, and the West Bank offices of the District Attorney and Sheriff.

“I am glad to see the new system installed,” said Parish President Bill Hubbard. “I think the residents will appreciate the ability to be transferred throughout parish government instead of being told to grab a pen to write another number down.”

Boe said in addition to the connectivity of the new system, the phone service is expected to save the parish over $70,000 a year through the use of data lines, which carry hundreds of phone lines over its capacity, instead of individual conventional phone lines.

Boe said the old parish phone system had also reached capacity in 2007, which would make the addition of new phone or fax lines impossible without canceling others. As a result, the data network within the parish was upgraded simultaneously with the installation of the new phone system.

In other action from the meeting, the council approved a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness that grants the parish over $46,800 for emergency issues within the parish. Oncale said the parish would be using the money toward an emergency preparedness educational program that would feature a mailer and a DVD with information about preparing for a hurricane or other weather event