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Emergency 911 call centers moving toward unified communications

The nation's emergency 911 call centers are built on antiquated analog technology that can't handle modern messaging. Vendors like Avaya are offering IP-based unified communications and call center technology to help them modernize.

Avaya is trying to bring modern unified communications and call center technology to the nation's antiquated emergency...

911 call centers. This week it announced the Avaya Public Safety Communications Solution product package.

Today's 911 call centers, known as public safety answering points (PSAPs), are based on analog technologies that don't work well, if at all, with emerging communications media such as text messaging and instant messaging, according to Guy Clinch, director of government industry solutions for Avaya.

"That severely limits not only their ability to deal with modern forms of communication, but it also puts us in a dangerous position from the standpoint of the limitations of government being able to respond to emergencies," Clinch said.

Avaya's new product is aimed at solving some of those problems. Clinch said that Avaya's Public Safety Communications Solution is built on the company's IP telephony platform, with a combination of servers and gateways designed for reliability. This technology will help PSAPs deal with non-voice communications for the first time, and it will also let them leverage modern call center technologies to become more effective.

"Most people don't know that 911 today is only connected via an analog network," said Jeff Robertson, executive director of the 911 Industry Alliance, an association of vendors that advocates for new technologies and government support of emergency communications services.

Robertson said that 99% of PSAPs in the nation today use an analog centralized automatic message accounting (CAMA) trunk, a network that dates back to the 1960s, to communicate with the outside world.

"It was great for landline phones and payphones," he said, "but the minute you enter mobility, text messaging, multimedia, OnStar and other things, it doesn't handle that well, if at all."

Almost none of the nation's PSAPs have the ability to receive text messages, instant messages, video, photos or emails because of their analog infrastructure, Robertson said. This is a huge problem, considering that a growing percentage of the country's population thinks it can reach 911 this way. The 911 Industry Alliance recently conducted a survey which found that 75% of the nation's youth think they can reach 911 via a text message.

"During the Virginia Tech shooting, plenty of text messages were sent to 911," Robertson said. "But there is not a 911 center in the nation that can receive a text message today, let alone a multimedia message. It's something the public expects today, but we don't have it. Those messages go nowhere. They just get rejected, and the problem is the person doesn't know that."

Avaya's IP telephony technology would provide the infrastructure that PSAPs need to be able to handle these new forms of communication, Robertson said.

"We don't expect PSAPs to rip and replace everything," Clinch said. "We expect to go in and over time transition from where they are today to a future state where they will be able to deal with next-generation communications. We do that by giving them most of the building blocks today and allowing them to adapt over time to that evolving environment."

PSAPs also need modern call center technologies to help them handle an increased volume of calls caused by the proliferation of personal communications, Robertson said.

"When I was a police officer, if we had an accident, it was a big deal if we got two calls from people who left their cars and ran to a house to make a call," he said. "Now, if there is a fender bender, a PSAP gets 30, 40 or even 50 calls, because everybody has got a cell phone and wants to report it. This puts a huge strain on people who have to take those calls."

Avaya's call center technology offers PSAPs the ability to do intelligent queuing, Robertson said. If 50 people call from one location, the system can interpret those calls as all relating to one incident and can assign priority to a call from another part of town. All those calls would get answered eventually, but the one call relating to a separate incident in another part of town wouldn't have to wait for all 50 other calls to get processed. Robertson said that in most PSAPs, many of those callers would just encounter a busy signal.

Clinch said that Avaya's technology will also help small PSAPs work collaboratively to scale their capacity during major emergencies.

"Most important is our ability to use IP technology to allow us to bridge distances between those independent centers and allow us to aggregate those centers on a geographical basis," Clinch said. "An example of this is in Galveston County, Texas. Two years ago, Galveston County had eight independent centers taking 911 calls. Depending on where you were, if you called 911, your call would go to one of those eight centers, and there was no ability for those centers to be able to back up one another. We put an IP telephony backbone and server-gateway strategy in that turned those eight independent call centers into a single virtual center."

"There's a lot of different initiatives being put forward right now, but it's clear that a couple of [things] need to happen: next-generation messaging and the ability to efficiently route and take calls," said William A. Stofega, research manager of VoIP services at IDC. "This [is] all something that's got to happen, and it's going to happen. And the state governments and all the different parts that make up emergency 911 are looking for these types of solutions."

Avaya is the first major vendor to bring a modern IP-based product suite to the 911 industry, Stofega said. There are some smaller vendors that have offered point products, and Nortel has a new product on the market. "But it's more marketed to corporate call centers than public safety," he said. "Avaya has done some special things that public safety requires, and then there are the third-party Avaya partners that are improving on that."

For instance, Avaya has integrated its technology with Intelligent Workstation technology from PlantCML to bring advanced contact center functionality to PSAP operators.

Avaya also has partnered with NICE Systems, a provider of secure call recording and analytics technology, since all calls and interactions in PSAPs must be recorded. It has also partnered with Raytheon's JPS Communications division, which will allow PSAP telephones to communicate with the land-based radios of first responders and public safety agencies, something that would have been a great help during the September 11 attacks on New York City.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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