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Using the cloud to weather the storms

When a disaster such as a hurricane, flood or terror attack hits with such impact that the infrastructure needed to support emergency services and first responders gets compromised, what can be done?  Since most every Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) has call-taking, dispatch and other equipment on premise, there is a single point of failure should that equipment become inoperative or should the PSAP need to be evacuated.  

Of course, every PSAP should have a plan for these types of disasters that is documented, reviewed and rehearsed. In general, the plan has some or all the following elements:

BACKUP CENTER

In most all cases, the best plan in case of a disaster is to have a true backup center which mirrors the primary PSAP and whose data is synchronized on a timely basis.  In the event of a disaster, the incoming call lines can be switched to point to the backup center, personnel are transported to the backup center and it is business as usual from that point forward.  This sound simple but the cost of such a backup center is significant.  Today, only 20% to 25% of PSAPs in the US have a true backup facility. Other PSAPs simply can’t afford to have a completely redundant backup center. 

Good Neighbors, Good PSAPs

So, what is the alternative to having a dedicated backup center? What many PSAPs do is to sign a Mutual Aid Agreement/Memorandum of Understanding with a neighboring county or other jurisdiction. The Mutual Aid Agreement is a formal contract for one jurisdiction to act as a backup location for another jurisdiction.  In many cases, the jurisdictions are a backup for each other. And, the backup jurisdiction does not have to be in the next county over! It is important to make sure that the failover PSAP is on a different electrical grid than your home PSAP. So in some cases, Mutual Aid Agreements exist with jurisdictions that are not adjacent to ensure that an electrical failure does not wipe put both the primary and backup centers.

 

Once a backup jurisdiction is selected and the Mutual Aid Agreement signed, then alternate phone switching must be set up whereby the calls that would normally come into the PSAP will be re-routed to go to the backup PSAP in the event of a disaster. The primary PSAP would trigger this switch as they evacuate their building at the onset of the disaster. Personnel from the primary PSAP must get to the backup PSAP to help with the increase in 9-1-1 calls during the disaster. Often, getting the call-takers to the backup site is dangerous in and of itself.  

 

But getting call-takers to the backup location is not enough. Maintaining access to the databases that support the call-takers is a big challenge from a technical and application integration point of view. If the backup location uses different software and if the lines connecting the two data centers are lost during the disaster, then the call-taking could be reduced to a pencil and paper process. To make sure the transition to the backup PSAP goes as smoothly as possible during an actual disaster, it is incumbent on both the primary and backup PSAP to have multiple practice sessions throughout the year.

Enter: “PSAP in the Cloud”

How does the response to a disaster change for a PSAP if they have no on-premise equipment and their call-handling and dispatch systems are hosted in the cloud? First of all, there is no single point of failure as the cloud would provide multiple, geographically dispersed, “availability zones” which would have redundant environments for all the PSAP applications AND databases. The PSAP would be truly mobile from the standpoint that any call-taker could log on to the system from any computer with a secure VPN connection. Once connected, all the databases and other system resources would be available – just as if the call-taker was sitting at their work station in the 9-1-1 center.

Other Cloud Benefits

With the inevitable spike in call volumes that happen during a disaster, cloud infrastructure is able to provide elasticity of resources to accommodate increased demand.  If bigger channels are needed, or more memory, or other resources, the cloud architecture will respond with more resources accordingly. With on-premise, you are limited to the specifications of the equipment that is there. If volumes are beyond the scalability of the hardware, then the process just slows down, hindering a PSAPs ability to meet demand.

 

In the cloud, the PSAP is connected via a pure IP (Internet Protocol) connection. With an IP connection, rich media (like video) and other data (possibly collected from sensors or social media) are available to the call-taker – in addition to voice.  This opens up many possibilities for call-takers and first responders to know exactly what is going on at the scene BEFORE they arrive. 

Finally, with PSAP in the cloud, redundant architecture is available to ALL PSAPs, large and small. Every PSAP will have a backup without having to make a significant secondary investment.

 

Software as a service in the cloud is not a new innovation – it has been around for nearly 20 years in the private sector. PSAPs have been slow to adopt cloud-based solutions. But in a very short period of time, given the enormous benefits that cloud infrastructure delivers, we

 believe it will become the norm.

 

Author: Paul Tatro, President of North American Operations at Carbyne

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