Prince George's County recreation officials are planning to double the number of portals into the new Internet registration system after it could not handle the load when hundreds of parents went online to try to register their children for summer programs.
The new system, called SMARTlink, is patterned after technology used in recreation departments in Rockville, Canada and California. In Prince George's, it is also tied to more than 70 telephone lines, which were more successful in answering calls and helping people register on March 15, the first day of registration for summer programs.
About 5,000 people registered between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. that day, said Anita Pesses, a spokeswoman for the county -- about one-fourth each by telephone and Internet and half at local recreation centers.
Pesses said that officials do not know how many people tried to access the SMARTlink system when registration opened at 9 a.m., but that all 100 lines were in use two seconds after registration began. The SMARTlink system was put in place four months ago by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to allow people to register for recreation programs and classes via Internet and telephone.
"We saw the numbers go up and hit the top of the connections about two seconds after 9," Pesses said. "It is very similar to what happens when you are trying to get tickets to a concert on Ticketmaster -- everybody is trying to get in, and there are only a certain number of [lines] that can be connected. We know we underestimated the number of people who would try to access the site. We thought it was going to be spaced out a little more."
She said new provisions for registration, such as bilingual options on SMARTlink, drew raves from parents. The new registration system also allowed parents to register children for programs from one location, instead of traveling to each location at which they wanted to enroll a child.
The SMARTlink system successfully registered hundreds of people in December for winter and spring classes, Pesses said, and officials thought they had tested it sufficiently.
Recreation officials wanted to use the computer program for summer camp registration to alleviate anxiety for parents, who often began lining up hours early to register children for some of the area's most popular summer programs. But this time, it didn't work as officials had hoped.
Prince George's County has about 14,000 slots, all highly sought after, for children and teens in summer programs. They are relatively inexpensive compared with many private programs.
Pesses said a help desk with 15 telephone lines received calls all day March 15 from parents complaining that they could not register online. She said many of them were placed on waiting lists.
Employees worked the next day to fit those children into other camps, and a few sections of the mostpopular camps were added because of the demand, she said.
While hundreds converged on telephone and computer lines at 9 a.m. March 15, traffic dropped significantly near 11 a.m., she said.
Pesses said officials heard from "some people who were really mad" after being unable to access the site. "But in years past, we've had people who were really mad after standing in line for hours and having the person in front of them take the last space. Unfortunately, we haven't come up with a system that will serve everyone at the same time and give them everything they want."
Pesses said that camp spaces are still available and that more than 700 people have been cleared off waiting lists. Though many of the swimming, performing arts and basketball camps are filled, the Explorers general recreation camps at many centers have openings. The county's nature camps are about 70 percent full, she said.
She mentioned special camps, such as a community service camp for ages 13 to 18 at the South Bowie recreation center and a Spanish camp at the Langley Park Community Center for children 6 to 12 as "great camp opportunities" still open for enrollment.
SMARTlink was designed for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission by Class Softward Solutions of Vancouver, B.C., Pesses said.
Implementation of the program took two years, and while no additional personnel were hired, 700 employees were trained to use it.
Pesses said the new program requires parents to stop by a recreation center with proof of residency and of their child's age to set up a SMARTlink account. That account allows them to register online or via telephone using a credit card or debit card.
People who don't have either type of card may put money in an account using a check or cash, she said. Personal identification numbers will be assigned to each family, and bar codes will be given to each person who sets up an account to enable signing up on the new system, she said.
For more information about summer programs, visit www.pgparks.com. Summer programs begin June 24 because the school year was extended to make up snow days.