9/11 Anniversary: Hurricane Irene puts Vermont's new 9-1-1 system to the test

Hosted emergency system handles twice as many calls as ever before

Hurricane Irene produced more than record flooding in Vermont: On Sunday, Aug. 28, the state's emergency personnel received twice as many 9-1-1 calls as ever before, putting its new dynamic call routing system to the test.

Vermont was one of the first states to deploy a next-generation 9-1-1 system based on Internet standards in 2007. Vermont recently upgraded its 9-1-1 system to provide dynamic call routing as part of a five-year, $10 million contract with Intrado, a Colorado hosting company.

Vermont has eight physical 9-1-1 call centers -- dubbed Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs) -- that take analog calls from telephone companies, convert them into Voice over IP communications and route them around the network as data. The system functions as one virtual call center, with calls automatically sent to the closest available operator.

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"With Hurricane Irene, we saw call volumes that were double of the busiest day that we've ever seen," says Jim Lipinski, Enhanced 9-1-1 IT manager for Vermont. "In the middle of the day on Sunday, our second busiest [call center] in Rutland had to be evacuated because of rising floodwaters. In a traditional 9-1-1 system, all the backup would have been to Williston, and Williston would have been completely overloaded. Instead, it rolled into the second tier, where it was distributed to other PSAPs. When they got full, calls got distributed across the entire state."

Vermont's Enhanced 9-1-1 Board received some pushback from constituents when it first announced plans for dynamic call routing across the state. That's because some observers feared the idea of having remote PSAPs respond to local emergency calls.

"The tough issue early on was when we talked about how a PSAP by the Canadian border could answer a call down near Massachusetts,'' Lipinski says. "It ended up being a complete non-issue. We give all the operators the same maps. We give them the same data. ... We have uniform training standards."

Eventually, Vermont hopes to deploy dynamic call routing outside the state -- to another jurisdiction in a different time zone that would be experiencing a different weather pattern. Lipinski hopes this so-called Tier 4 functionality will be possible in 2015, when Vermont's current contract with Intrado expires.

"I think in 2015 there will be at least a dozen states far enough along that we can start our next contract with a Tier 4 dynamic routing system," he says. "A system like this is more reliable because it creates a mesh, and it increases the size of the disaster that you can handle. ... If Hurricane Irene had hit Vermont as a Category 2, we would have been overwhelmed. But if we had a Tier 4 system, we would not be overwhelmed.''

Vermont's IP-based 9-1-1 system will make it easier to deploy advanced services, such as text messaging and video, when standards become available. Lipinski is excited about the possibility of using the state's 9-1-1 system to send maps to first responders.

In the meantime, he believes that Vermont's investment in IP-based 9-1-1 technology ended up saving lives during Hurricane Irene.

"We had 3,500 calls on Sunday. We were able to take all 3,500 calls," Lipinski says. "If one of those calls reached a call taker that convinced somebody to stay put and not try one of our washed out roads, then we saved a life."

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