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Closed pools, communication snafus dismay children

Sometimes a public pool or other facility just can't be open when everyone hopes, but when the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) isn't able to keep its website and voicemail up to date, sudden changes leave children crying and parents frustrated.

Photo by tomorrowstand on Flickr.

On Labor Day weekend Saturday, September 8, I told my 3-year-old that we would go swim together at Wilson Pool when he woke up the next day. My son absolutely loves swimming, and went to sleep focused on my promise to him. That's what toddlers do.

The next morning at 8:30 am, I double-checked the Wilson website, and called to listen to their voicemail. Both said that the pool would be open at 9 am. My son put on his bathing suit and we walked to the bus stop for the 20-minute ride to Tenleytown.

As we walked up to the entrance, I saw a family with 3 children in dry bathing suits walking my way, one of whom was crying. A paper sign on the door said that the pool would be closed for another week, after 2 weeks of maintenance scheduled to be complete the day before. "I checked the website," the father said to his kids.

When I explained to my little guy that the pool was closed, he asked a couple of times, "When will it be open?" and "Why is it closed?" until the reality sank in and he had a crying tantrum on the sidewalk.

I tweeted my frustration that Wilson was closed despite contrary information on both the website and voicemail.

DPR replied to say that they had sent out a press release via email and posted the information on Twitter, but they have a small communications staff, all of which was unavailable for much of the weekend. The press release said that an "HVAC parts shipment has been delayed".

DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes says that the communications staff at DPR was 7 people when he arrived 5 years ago, and is now 2 people due to budget cuts. However, DPR did not request additional communications staff in the most recent budget.

Stokes also said that few DPR staff can update the website, since they first need training on the web platform. They aren't the only agency where the information on the web often lags other modes of communication; press releases for events from many agencies often go out to press lists but don't appear on the web until the next day.

DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), which runs centralized technology systems like the website, is working to switch to a new system built on the popular Drupal platform. OCTO Spokesperson Ayanna Smith says this will make it easier for more staff to update web pages. OCTO expects to finish this transition in FY 2013, which means by Sept 30, 2013, said Smith.

Because of their limitations placing pool closure information on their website, DPR relies on Twitter and Facebook to communicate closures. They have done a good job responding to residents via social media. However, it seems unlikely that pool users would think to check DPR's Twitter feed to check if a pool is closed.

DPR has engaged a firm to survey DC residents on how to improve their communication. What would you tell DPR? How do you think they should inform the public of unscheduled pool closures and other changes?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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At a minimum, how about a sentence and link at the top of the pool hours page that says "For the most-up-to-date information on pool closings, see our twitter feed"?

by Chris Slatt on Oct 1, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

Seriously, this is so annoying. It happened multiple times this summer at Watkins pool. Saying that there are only two people who can update the website is ridiculous in this day and age. I am not going to check DPR's Facebook or Twitter feed; I expect that they will update their website or voicemail appropriately. Why didn't Stokes address the problem of the voicemail? Is there only one person who has the ability to update that?

by Allison on Oct 1, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

If you're not going to update your page so it has accurate information, then there's little point to having a page that purports to show the status of different sites.

by MLD on Oct 1, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

Even if there is no communications staff, there ought to be someone available, either at DPR or at OCTO to update this content. This is 2012, not 1991.

by Andrew on Oct 1, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

Grrr, someone who's not me should definitely do something about this.

I think part of the problem is citizens demanding a single source for all information, while simultaneously demanding that the source be in a format of their choosing.

by Paul on Oct 1, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

I think its backwards, the info should be on the main website/voicemail first and then be added to twitter/facebook.

That or the pools should pretty much switch over to solely to social media with a persistent link like Chris Slatt suggested.

No matter what, the beauty of having an online presence is that people don't have to waste time traveling to find out something is closed. If you can't do that then why be online at all?

by drumz on Oct 1, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

So many problems here.

Why did DPR ever need a communications staff of 7 and why can they not get by today with a staff of 2?

And they could not update the voicemail -really?

My own interactions with DPR have been really underwhelming - from the front line staffing to the lack of responses to the poor implementation of park improvements up to day to day maintenance this is a Department that seems to barely be able to function.

DPR does not seem to do any basic maintenance of their facilities (tree trimming & basic litter pick-up - seriously look around at any outdoor DPR facility and look at the poor condition of all of the landscaping & trees and how much trash is laying around on the ground) but the big question to me here is why does a facility that just opened a few years ago need to be closed for 3 weeks for maintenance?

And there was the recent Post piece about DPR's inability to manage the most basic of tasks in managing permitting.

In my neighborhood our 1 year old splash park was barely working by the end of the summer and no one from DPR can bother to respond to multiple emails about what is going on and the recently replaced grass in the same park is in abysmal condition.

The woman who runs the rec center refuses to order more sand for the sand box because she doesn't like how it gets all over the place (though she never saw a piece of litter she could pick up) so DPR's facilities management person in the one instance when she responded to numerous emails suggested I replace the sand myself.

In a region with West Nile we have standing water issues in the park (DPR has no concerns about health issues I was told) and 4 weeks after the splash park closed the chlorine remains outside in an enclosure most first graders could scale.

But DPR can find 2 staffers to come in on Sunday afternoons to open the rec center to enable a basketball league to plug in their electric scoreboard.

But my favorite was the DPR staffer who was encouraging people to drive across the baseball field and its new turf and park on it next to his car so they would not have to walk any distance from their cars to get to the park.

I'd be curious if any lifeguards have been on the payroll the last 3 weeks while the pool has been closed.

by TomQ on Oct 1, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

None of this makes any sense. The original poster said that over Labor Day Weekend, s/he was going to take their son to go swimming at Wilson. Per the earlier press release they sent out on August 9th, they noted that Wilson would be closed for maintenance between August 26th and September 8. The on September 8th, they sent out a follow up email (linked above) that notified the public that Wilson's reopening was delayed until September 15th.

On the main Aquatics facilities site, Click Here, they clearly posted the upcoming pool closures for maintenance. I presume they updated with the delayed reopening after the 8th. So, if the OP got the date wrong and actually went to the pool the weekend after, then DPR should be more timely with their updates. Why wait until the day that the pool is scheduled to reopen to announce that they are actually behind schedule? In the same vein, Marie Reed's reopening has been delayed until next week. So why haven't they updated their schedule?

I think the OP completely missed the main Aquatics Facilities page and linked straight to the Wilson Aquatic Center hours page from Google and is complaining that they didn't go the extra step and update more than one page.

by awb on Oct 1, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

Ken just has his weekends messed up, the incident happened on the 9th.

by MLD on Oct 1, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

Setting aside the "only 6 prople in the DC government can update the website" nonsense - is the voicemail system similarly "complicated?" No one could change the outgoing message?

Of course not - no one THOUGHT TO change the outgoing message.

As an aside, the attitude of DPR - and many other parts of the DC government - seems to be, "They cut our staff, so lots of things won't get done," rather than "they cut our staff, so we'll have to work harder to try to compensate." I am no fan of the "government should be run like a business" meme, but in this specific instance, I may be willing to make an exception. Work harder, and get it done. Period.

by dcd on Oct 1, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

This is just stupid if you are going to have a site it should be up to date. This is not just a DC problem I have seen sites for companies, governments or government agencies not up to date.

by kk on Oct 1, 2012 6:13 pm • linkreport

It's hardly surprising that DPR's pools department is a mess. The management of the Rosedale rec center pool, which is brand new, has been an absolute shambles. It was constantly closed all summer for a variety of reasons; any given time it was closed when I was there I would get six different answers about why, as well as lies about when it would be open again. The management of DPR and the pools is a total joke. They need a complete overhaul and need to hire people who will actually do the job correctly.

by Joe on Oct 1, 2012 7:10 pm • linkreport

If the website is so hard to update, they COULD change the website. e.g. put the twitter feed through the website.

by SJE on Oct 1, 2012 9:25 pm • linkreport

This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME with DPR. The website will say one thing, a sign at the pool will say another, and the people working there will say a third. Whoever is running DPR is doing a terrible job, especially the folks in charge of the Wilson pool.

by ktotheawesome on Oct 2, 2012 8:58 am • linkreport

I had a similar experience at Wilson - luckily I called during business hours to check if the pool was open. The manager answered the phone without identifying himself or that I was calling Wilson Pool, just "hello?"
When the pool did reopen I asked if they'd be posting the lane schedule online (with school back in session and swim meets starting its nice to plan workouts in advance). Answer - nope, they won't be posting things online I need to call or come in and check the calendar in person. Two people can handle communications for DPR. I used to work in PA for a federal agency with a budget of over $10B and a huge national security mission - we had a staff of 5. DPR can get by with 2 easily.
DPR badly needs a Leslie Knoppe to kick the over abundance of April Ludgates' butts in gear!

by andy2 on Oct 2, 2012 9:10 am • linkreport

what they really need to do is give up more than 10 spots for adult swimming classes....just sayin'

by SM on Oct 2, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

The Marie Reed pool page still has the August schedule posted. I even used DC gov's page to log a request for up to date schedules back in early September and never received any sort of response.

by Ginger on Oct 2, 2012 10:32 am • linkreport

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