FARGO, N.D. - Gone are the days of calling trees for the North Dakota National Guard's Service Member and Family Support Division. A new system allows the Guard to quickly contact Soldiers' and Airmen's family members 2010 style.

Through Blackboard Connect, the Guard can quickly send phone and text messages to let military families know their loved ones' status. In the past, a leader would either call a designated number of people with a message, and those called would then each phone a number of others to relay the message, and so forth. For major announcements, the Guard would individually call each family.

"My No. 1 priority is taking care of Guardsmen and their families, and we're always looking for ways to enhance that care," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general. "Our Soldiers, Airmen and their family members serve every day, both here and abroad, and we must do everything we can to ensure their needs are properly met and that we maintain clear, fast lines of communication. This system will help us do that."

Melissa Kilde, Family Assistance Center coordinator for the North Dakota National Guard, says there will still be personal calls made when warranted, but that Blackboard will help notify families of deployed Guardsmen of upcoming events.

"This could include Soldiers arriving at their duty station, Yellow Ribbon or Family Readiness Group events, Guardsmen returning home, etc.," Kilde said. "The recordings can be made by calling a toll-free number, so we would like to include the commanders and give them the opportunity to record messages to the families in the future, as well as messages from the Family Assistance Center. It will not replace the personal wellness calls family members receive from the FAC."

South Dakota is already using the system, and other states in the region are exploring the option. So far, North Dakota has used it three times.

"The first official call was to notify the families of the (Kosovo Force 12) Soldiers that returned in May to let them know that the Soldiers had landed on U.S. soil," Kilde said.

The contact numbers are garnered during Soldier Readiness Processing that occurs before a deployment. Families can choose at any time whether to opt in or out for the text messaging portion. More than 1,100 family members are already connected, and the Service Member and Family Support Division expects to add more as needed.

"It is all about keeping the family members informed," Kilde said. "It has made it possible to contact a large number of family members in a short amount of time. Already, we were able to notify all family members late in the evening when previously we would not have had enough time for staff to make all of the calls prior to it getting too late.

"It's also about efficiency," she continued. "It has and will save us countless hours and therefore money, which allows us more time and resources to assist our families."
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the North Dakota National Guard has mobilized more than 3,500 Soldiers and more than 1,800 Airmen in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Currently, about 600 North Dakota Guardsmen are serving overseas. With a total force of about 4,400 Soldiers and Airmen, sufficient forces remain in the state for emergency response and homeland defense.