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Convergence, interoperability key in disaster planning

Convergence and interoperability are major factors in ensuring communications continuity in a disaster.

Converging voice and data onto one network and ensuring that a host of devices play nice together on those networks are key to communications continuity in the event of a disaster.

And that message was hammered home recently by Avaya and several key business and public sector leaders who got together to discuss best practices for continued communication during a catastrophe. The Web event focused on keeping communications up and running during a disaster.

According to Avaya, a recent survey of 1,000 IT managers found that 96% of organizations aren't confident that they are well prepared to communicate in a disaster, and 30% said they have no communications continuity plan in place at all.

Guy Clinch, director of public sector solutions for Avaya, said many public and private sector organizations know there is a need for some form of continuity plan, but only a handful are doing anything about it.

"Many things need to happen," he said. "First, they need to stop all the talking and start taking action."

The key, according to Clinch, is establishing interoperability, not only through unified communications -- VoIP, messaging, presence and other technologies -- but also by creating infrastructures that allow communication devices such as radios to interoperate with each other.

"We need the ability for any device to talk to any device on any network," he said. In the event of a disaster, "key players need to be able to communicate with each other."

Larry DiGioia, information services director for the City of Altamonte, Fla., said his city has worked tirelessly over the past three years to tie communications systems together to ensure that everything will be up and running, whatever happens.

"We're the government; our citizens are depending on us when things go wrong," DiGioia said.

Using industry standards and protocols, many organizations can centralize their operations and share applications over networks, Clinch said. VoIP is an integral part of the puzzle, but to use IP communication tools, organizations don't need to "rip and replace everything that's already there and convert it to the world of IP," he said. If an organization has aging PBXs, it can easily use interfaces to contact the server.

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Communication continuity also depends on redundancy in the infrastructure, Clinch said. A modular approach can assist in that.

DiGioia said the City of Altamonte has moved its communications center from one room in City Hall to a full single-story facility across the street. The communications center is encased in reinforced concrete, and all of the city's telecommunication and infrastructure feeds into it. T1 lines – in the event of failure -- are automatically backed up by fiber, he said. The fiber runs underground, directly between the city's various public services.

"All of our communications lines are home run," DiGioia said. "There's no way for it to go down. We use the fiber network to redirect calls if the TI goes down."

He added that the city uses fully redundant phones and switches and has dedicated generators that can run for a week if power is lost.

The project started shortly after a rash of major storms slammed the city, DiGioia said, prompting his team to dismantle and reassemble the entire network and phone system several times.

Now, he said, the city is looking at ways to transfer calls from the voice system to cellular phones, and it's looking to add modular messaging.

"We want to give folks 'anytime, anywhere' access to all communication tools," DiGioia said.

The project has been time consuming and will probably continue to grow and evolve for years, he added. His advice: "Make sure when you think you've got it rock solid down, go back and look at it again." Asking for a second opinion from an expert not vested in the project can also help find any potential communication continuity holes, he said.

Clinch said Altamonte and several similar cities show that the tools exist to create and implement a strong communication continuity plan. It's just a matter of getting started.

"We don't have to keep waiting for the choices, the choices are out there," he said, adding that IP telephony, SIP, digital and analog telephone, Wi-Fi, wired, and a host of other technologies can enable communication continuity. The tools are available, he said; organizations just have to embrace them.

"A carpenter is only as good as his hammer," Clinch said. "Well, disaster recovery is only as good as the tools. Interoperability among devices and networks will lead to the convergence that will enable communication continuity."

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