Call centers prepare for the worst
Public-safety answering points represent the heart of first-responder communications. Every emergency 911 call nationwide-whether it’s made by a wired or wireless phone — goes into a PSAP, with a dispatcher taking down critical information on emergency situations and then forwarding the information to the appropriate first responder agency: emergency medical service (EMS), fire, or police. Operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, PSAPs can’t afford to be down for any length of time.
First responders will be the first to admit they do not operate in a perfect world, so redundancies have been engineered into emergency call centers across the country, according to Rick Jones, operations issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, the national working group for 911 service. “All kinds of backups are built into a PSAP to make sure it stays operational,” Jones said. “There’s generator power, a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to backup the generator and alternate lines for 911 trunks coming into the facility. It’s very seldom that a PSAP itself fails.”
Still, no matter how diligent the planning, no PSAP is completely impervious to the impact of extreme challenges such as major storms, terrorist attacks, widespread power failures and phone line outages. “The most prevalent [contingency] model is to have another PSAP in the area that can assume the duties of a [downed] PSAP,” Jones said. “The second one is for the PSAP to have its own alternative site. Sometimes those two models are combined, where there is an alternative site plus another PSAP takes over [calls] until the alternative site is up and running.”
The City of Chicago faced such a circumstance in July when it lost its 911 emergency call center — which handles about 18,000 calls per day — when a computer motherboard burned out, which in turn fried the center’s switching system, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Calls were rerouted to the city’s 311 center and activity was “near normal” an hour after the changeover, according to a 911 center spokesman, after 911 center call takers and dispatchers were redeployed.
Jones said there is no national standard for contingency plans because PSAP networks are different across each region and state. “In most parts of the country, [contingency planning] is handled by state regulation or by local regulation and procedures. It’s difficult to come out with one national recommendation.”
Over the past four years, contingency plans for the Peoria County (Ill.) Emergency Telephone System (ETS) haven’t changed much, said David Tuttle, chairperson of the ETS Board. “We have some enhanced security, but not much has changed.”
The system serves a population of 185,000 covering 629 square miles, using four call centers located in Peoria, Bartonsville, Peoria Heights and Chillicothe. The largest center in Peoria typically has seven staffers on duty, while the smaller call centers may only have one person answering the phone. The four centers collectively employ about 65 staffers covering all shifts.
“We have a conventional [radio] system right now,” said Tuttle. “Fire is on 154 MHz, police at 460, and the sheriff’s department is at 158.” He added that there have been some interoperability issues. The police and sheriff’s departments can talk to each other, but fire department personnel have to be in their vehicles to communicate with them. To solve that problem, officials are in the process of soliciting bids on an 800 MHz trunked radio system that all agencies in the county would use.
Since 1994, Peoria County has operated duplicate facilities at each of its dispatch centers. “We have the same operational equipment, computer-aided dispatch, the same telecommunications, same telephone system, same recording system — everything down to the chairs is identical,” Tuttle said. “We believe we are one of the few dispatch centers in the state of Illinois that have this type of backup.”
The use of identical equipment in each center is an important factor when a switchover becomes necessary, according to Tuttle. “We go down there, push a couple of buttons, and we’re on the air. Even the mouse they use on their console is identical,” he said. “We like [a duplicated equipment setup] because people are already under enough stress when they have to relocate. We want to be able to provide a familiar environment. It’s worked well for us.”
To build in this level of redundancy, the ETS insisted that construction bids for all four centers include the backup equipment. And the redundancy has come with a certain price. “The recurring charges are what’s expensive,” Tuttle said, referring to the duplication of radio circuits and phone systems.
In the event of a switchover, Peoria County has a high-speed notification system that delivers a voice message to personnel through the county’s community message system within two minutes. “It can do text, but that takes longer. Voice is faster and better,” Tuttle said. It takes about 12 minutes to move staff from the Peoria dispatch site to the alternate site in Bartonsville. “The equipment is all live, ready to go. All we have to do is transfer the 911 [phone lines] and transfer the non-emergency phones. We have a switch to transfer the 911 calls and a plan with SBC to alternatively route the non-emergency numbers.”
Every year for the past five years, the Peoria dispatch center has been shut down for a week to test the relocation plan and backup equipment. That helps personnel become familiar with the alternate center and provides a window for maintenance and installation of equipment in the primary center. This year, the Peoria center will be shut down for two weeks for the installation of new phone equipment.
Tuttle says the ETS has executed about three switchovers over the past five years because of power issues and cut phone cables. “Cable cuts are a common problem, with all the people digging and doing underground work,” Tuttle said. Another potential concern is the weather. “Tornados are a big deal. There was an F5 tornado about 12 miles east of us that leveled a big manufacturing plant.”
In contrast, the Public-Safety Communications Center (PSCC) in Fairfax County, Va., has a somewhat different set of worries due to its size. The 400-square-mile county adjacent to Washington, D.C., has a population of nearly 1 million. Answering both 911 and non-emergency calls for police, fire, and EMS units, the PSCC handles more than 1.2 million calls a year. The center employs more than 30 people per shift and about 130 employees in total.
The PSCC handles so many phone calls that neighboring PSAPs in other jurisdictions can’t be used as a fallback. “Unfortunately, we’ve discussed it, but we would pretty much overwhelm any other PSAP,” said Jim Charron, Fairfax County Police captain and PSCC director. In the event of a “total meltdown,” the PSCC would move to an alternate facility nearby. “It isn’t as sophisticated, there’s no computer-aided dispatching. We’d be writing on cards and voice dispatching just to get the job done.”
To prevent and prepare for Armageddon, the PSCC stresses backup modes for all systems, including its Motorola 800 MHz digital trunked radio system. “Motorola was floored when we told them we wanted to put the system into ‘fail safe’ mode,” Charron said. “We were the first to say we wanted to do it on purpose, and they didn’t have a procedure for it. It’s a very complex system.” Today, Motorola holds up Fairfax County as a best-practices example for other customers, Charron said.
The insistence on backup modes paid dividends, as the system developed a problem the day it went out of warranty, according to Charron. “We had to reset controllers, but since we had practiced it, no one on the street blinked.”
Even if the PSCC radio system totally dies, Fairfax County first responders have numerous operational options. Neighboring jurisdictions also have migrated to Motorola 800 MHz digital trunked systems. “It would be a challenge, but we could set up talk groups on [other jurisdictions’] radios. It wouldn’t be the greatest coverage, but we could get pretty solid coverage,” Charron said.
The PSCC also could seamlessly switch into Fairfax County’s public-service radio system that supports non-public safety government users, such as school buses and local transit. “It’s not quite the tower coverage, but it is still very good,” Charron said.
Fairfax County may have a better option in a few years. Call traffic is outgrowing the current PSCC, so officials are in the process of building a new facility. When operations are switched over to the new facility, the current facility may be kept in operation as a backup center.
THE 411 on 911
When the three-digit number is dialed, a call taker in the local PSAP, or 911 call center, answers the call. The emergency and its location are communicated by voice (or TTY) between the caller and the call taker.
The call is routed to the proper local 911 center for the caller’s location, and the 911 center has equipment and database information that display the caller’s phone number and address to the call taker. The term “enhanced 911” is not synonymous with wireless 911.
Wireless Phase I:
The call taker automatically receives the wireless callback number. This is important in the event the wireless phone call is dropped, and may even allow PSAP employees to work with the wireless company to identify the wireless subscriber. Phase I also delivers the location of the cell tower handling the call.
Wireless Phase II:
Phase II allows call takers to receive both the caller’s wireless phone number and their location information.
Wireless 911 Progress:
The U.S. has 6183 primary and secondary PSAPs. Based on NENA’s preliminary assessment of the most recent FCC quarterly filings:
|7%||have either basic 911 or no 911|
|93%||have enhanced 911 for wireline callers|
|71%||have some Phase I|
|27%||have some Phase II|