On the evening of 9 April 2015, a category EF4 tornado packing maximum winds of 200 miles per hour tore through two American towns in northern Illinois – Rochelle and Fairdale – on a 43.5-mile journey of massive destruction and terror.
The storm, one of 11 tornados that were spawned by a supercell thunderstorm, killed two people, injured 11 others and obliterated more than 100 homes and businesses. Large portions of both Rochelle and Fairdale no longer exist.
It’s a scenario that ranks among the greatest fears of emergency managers. But there is another scenario that arguably is even worse, one that keeps them awake at night or makes the hairs on the back of their necks stand on end just thinking about it, or both: the inability to provide the emergency response so desperately needed by the victims of such disasters because their emergency calling centre, the public safety answering point (PSAP, also known as a 9-1-1 centre), has been rendered inoperable.
There are numerous reasons why this could happen in the aftermath of such a disaster. Perhaps the tornado caused significant damage to the PSAP – such storms tend not to play favourites – that makes the building uninhabitable.
Or the commercial power and telecommunications systems have been knocked offline. Or downed trees and power lines have made the roads leading to the facility inaccessible.
Fortunately, technology exists that allows 9-1-1 managers to mitigate these circumstances and restore 9-1-1 operations in a very short amount of time and with very little effort once the capability is fully operational.
9-1-1 on the Go
The answer for many can be found in cloud-based, hosted call-handling solutions. Such services enable 9-1-1 telecommunicators to literally pick up and go whenever and wherever they need to – they can bring their laptops to a PSAP in a neighbouring town or county, to a mobile command centre parked outside of the destruction zone, to a nearby hotel or even their own homes – anywhere that they can access the commercial internet.
Such access could be accomplished in a variety of ways: via commercial wireless or satellite service, while en route to the temporary facility in an incident command vehicle; via a wireless local area network (LAN) upon arrival at the temporary facility, or via a wired connection.
Although technological challenges may exist concerning this temporary connectivity, they are overridden by the ability to field the emergency call.
Once online, the connection to the hosted call-handling solution is achieved via a secure virtual private network (VPN) tunnel, and traffic between the solution’s servers and the telecommunicators’ laptops can be encrypted.
Once the emergency call has been fielded, telecommunicators then would dispatch first responders and apparatus via a radio over IP (RoIP) connection. Similar to voice over IP (VoIP), RoIP is a method of interconnecting consoles, radios and other devices using standard Internet Protocols.
One of the great features of the hosted call-handling service is that each telecommunicator’s experience is no different than it would be if they were sitting in their own 9-1-1 centre, because such solutions preserve their preferences, from their screen layouts to their speed-dial lists.
This is important because the faster those telecommunicators can become acclimatised to their new surroundings, the more quickly, instinctively and effectively they can perform their duties, which could mean the difference between life and death.
It would take hours, even days, to programme these preferences into another PSAP’s call-handling system, time that emergency managers simply do not have in the aftermath of a major disaster.
While the same temporary functionality could be accomplished via a backup PSAP, such an approach has significant limitations. One is that, in this era of diminishing tax revenues, shrinking 9-1-1 funding and disappearing grant programmes, many public safety agencies are finding it difficult to maintain operations on a high level at their primary PSAPs, much less find the financial wherewithal needed to operate a brick-and-mortar backup centre that might only be used once every few years, if that.
Another is that backup PSAPs, where they exist, are usually located within 20 miles of the primary PSAP, which means that they often are just as affected as the primary centre by major weather events such as tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.
Indeed, the instinct of PSAP managers would most likely be to move their personnel as far from harm’s way as possible, and the mobility provided by a cloud-based, hosted call-handling solution that could be accessed wirelessly would provide the necessary flexibility.
There are other reasons to consider such solutions. PSAPs across the country are under significant financial pressure and intense scrutiny. While the initial cost of provisioning a cloud-based, call-handling solution would be on a par with what an agency would spend on standalone customer premises equipment installed onsite, the agency would save considerable money on system maintenance and monitoring, particularly as it relates to personnel and training costs.
Another advantage is that the cost of provisioning such a solution would be a predictable, recurring operational expense (opex), which is more easily budgeted for and managed when compared with a massive capital expense (capex) that occurs once every five to 10 years and which is subject to significant price spikes over such a time period.
Plus it generally is easier to convince local leaders to authorise opex money than it is to get them to provide capex money.
Finally, provisioning a hosted solution typically guarantees that the hardware and software components always will be of the latest revision, which eliminates the need for periodic system refreshes, as well as the need to plan for system end of life.
Moreover, cloud-based, hosted call-handling solutions are generally engineered to provide high levels of reliability, as the platform typically consists of two or more redundant servers. The computer-processing capability of such servers has developed to the degree that they offer a tremendous amount of capacity in terms of the number of 9-1-1 trunks and telecommunicator positions that they can handle.
Indeed, such solutions can handle as many as 300 call-taker positions, which is more than some states have. This means that such solutions could be leveraged regionally or even statewide – and the more agencies that utilise the solution, the less that each will pay in terms of the provisioning, operations and maintenance costs.
So, add it all up and it seems as if opting for a cloud-based, hosted call-handling solution is a no-brainer decision.
Not so fast
While the reasons for choosing a cloud-based, hosted call-handling solution might seem compelling, naysayers are able to conjure a couple of arguments against doing so that at first glance appear to be equally compelling. For instance, some emergency managers might be reticent about giving up control over so vital a communications capability as an emergency call-handling system.
The control issue exacerbates when multiple agencies are involved. But these issues can easily be resolved through effective governance. Public safety agencies typically already have working relationships with neighbouring agencies and intergovernmental agreements that cover other operational aspects, so expanding their scope may take care of this problem.
Corollary to the control issue is the ‘It’s not my guy’ issue. Emergency managers tend to prefer that the monitoring, maintenance and troubleshooting of their communications systems are performed by someone on staff that they know will answer the call and jump out of bed at three in the morning should something go awry. Consequently, they might be cool to the idea of outsourcing such a vital responsibility.
The key to overcoming this concern is to choose a provider that you can trust, which in the case of cloud-based, hosted call-handling solutions shouldn’t be difficult at all.
The providers of such solutions are not commercial call centres, but rather known and trusted entities in the public safety realm, such as, in the case of the US, AT&T, CenturyLink, Intrado, General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), and Motorola (which earlier this year purchased 9-1-1 call-taking software provider Emergency CallWorks).
Keep in mind that many agencies, particularly smaller ones, lack the advanced IT capabilities needed to perform system monitoring, maintenance and troubleshooting.
So in the case of AT&T, CenturyLink, Intrado, GDIT, and Motorola, their guy usually will be better than your guy – after all, they engineered the solution and have a vested interest in maintaining the highest levels of reliability and availability. In fact, knowing that they’re on top of this should allow emergency managers to sleep well at night.
All things considered, a cloud-based, hosted call-handling solution is something that every public agency should at least consider. Such solutions always will be up to date; they are reliable, they offer long-term opex savings, they avoid periodic massive capex outlays and – perhaps most important of all – they untether PSAPs and provide mobility that largely doesn’t exist today, which will enable them to achieve continuity of operations when it is needed most.
Dave Sehnert is a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners, Inc, (www.mcp911.com), a public safety communication consulting firm headquartered in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. Mission Critical Partners is a member of iCERT.