Courtesy Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
From his office, Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks uses a LifeSize endpoint to speak with Police Chief Ben Reed.

Face Time: Video Conferencing App Improves Business Relations for Eastern Band of Cherokees

Michelle Tirado

Many employees of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who tote tribal issued mobile devices are—or will be soon—getting more face time in with a video conferencing application.

The Eastern Band, which employs about 1,100 workers, began its deployment of ClearSea, a high-definition video conferencing product owned and marketed by LifeSize, in October 2012. ClearSea allows users to make video calls from more than 50 mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, as well as desktops. The solution is standards based, so, unlike services like Skype, it does not require users to log in. To date, about 50 Tribal employees are using ClearSea to meet face to face. Among them are Principal Chief Michell Hicks and seven deputies that oversee some 355 tribal programs.

The tribe adopted the technology after Hicks challenged Jeremy Brown, the tribe’s audio-visual administrator, to find a solution to make weekly meetings with his seven deputies more attended. “He said he had issues getting them all at the same table at one time,” Brown said. While ClearSea has made a difference with that, there are other reasons why it is an asset and why the Eastern Band plans to roll it out to more employees.

The Eastern Band has more than 12,000 enrolled members and the majority reside within the tribe’s 82-square-mile Qualla Boundary, which extends across five counties in rural western North Carolina. While most live in or near Cherokee, the seat of the government and home to the Eastern Band’s casino, a number live in the outlying tribal communities, with one 60 miles away. For those who need services such as health care in Cherokee, it can be quite the drive.

“We have patients from my community of Snowbird that are making this drive. It’s about 45 minutes one way. Sometimes they have to come once a week, sometimes it’s twice a week, just to sit down and meet with their doctor,” said Brown. “With the telehealth side of video conferencing, we can alleviate so much of that.”

Brown added that employees of the tribally supported health care service that deals with home health and Medicare and Medicaid are frequently invited to meetings in Raleigh for state issues and Atlanta for district issues, but there is not enough funds to go to all of them. Although these employees have not yet used ClearSea to attend these meetings, it is part of the plan.

Currently, Hicks and the tribe’s commerce and police departments have their own video codecs—camera, conference phone and display. Brown said the gaming commission is next.

“Cherokee people as a community are very personable. We enjoy face to face. And there are just a lot of times we have issues in getting things accomplished when we are sitting here talking into a cell phone,” Brown said.

Benjamin Reed is chief of the tribe’s police department and one of less than a dozen in the department that is using the video conferencing app. He prefers it over email and text. “Things are usually too difficult to explain over email or text,” he said. “Text and email are easily misinterpreted.”

The app is getting a lot of use in the 62-officer department. Last January, heavy rains caused a rockslide on U.S. Highway 441, a main thoroughfare for drivers heading to the Band’s casino. The tribe went directly to President Obama to get a state of emergency declaration. Hicks and public safety officers used video conferencing to coordinate the FEMA funding and cleanup.

Reed said some of his drug investigators were recently in Florida to follow up on a drug case and he checked in with them via video conferencing. Reed also uses it for meetings, including a security meeting late this summer. While away in Tennessee, he participated via his iPad.

“Everyone likes to text or email, and you lose the full impact of the communication,” Reed said. “We have a lot of plans to utilize this.”