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Modernizing a 911 Call Center by Taking It Cloud Native

Logan County, West Virginia, updates its emergency operations resources with cloud-based platforms that offer access to location data and onsite video.

Changing up the communications and IT backbone of emergency services can benefit the public while also eliminating dated, high cost hardware. Those are some key returns Ted Sparks, executive director of the Logan 911 emergency operations center, says he has seen by adopting cloud-native platforms for communications and information management. “We’re able to get the right information to the right people in an expedient manner,” he says.

Though the public can readily share data and video with each other through social media and other platforms, some emergency service teams have not had access to such resources. For example, Sparks says Logan 911, which covers a population of 36,000 in Logan County, W.Va., had been using a conventional, legacy phone system and CAMA (centralized automatic message accounting) trunk lines -- technology from the 1950s. “It was made to do toll calls back in the day,” he says. “It’s antiquated technology and there haven’t been any significant upgrades.”

Image: MoiraM -
Image: MoiraM -

Only limited amounts and types of information can be pushed through copper trunk lines, Sparks says. That typically came in the form of automatic number identifiers and automatic location identifiers but not much else in terms of useful data, he says. Though there has been plenty of talk in recent years about the next generation of 911, Sparks says, little tangible movement was made.

Logan 911 adopted cloud-native solutions from Carbyne that he says presented a material change with real-time texting, video, and other features. “Imagine being able to see what’s going on at a 911 call even before the officer, fireman, or EMT steps out of their vehicle,” Sparks says. Such resources can help responders more clearly understand the nature of the emergency they are heading to.

Carbyne’s platform gathers data directly from the caller’s handset, he says, through a secure virtual private network (VPN). When someone communicates with the 911 call center, a text link can be sent out to their mobile phone that when clicked will share video back to the call center. Sharing video and other information is an option the caller must decide, but if this is acceptable, it could offer more details on crimes in progress, medical emergencies, and even people who are lost while hiking by helping responders see the location or observe injuries.

Sparks says Carbyne’s platform is supported by a partnership with RapidSOS, which brings in location data directly from the device used to make the emergency call. “In a rural area, such as Logan County, there are a lot of mountains, deep valleys, and sparse cell phone service,” he says. “You really don’t get good triangulation from the cell companies because there aren’t enough towers to do that.

Logan 911 covers 5 communities as well as 100 unincorporated communities, Sparks says. The emergency service started off with a light version of Carbyne’s platform, he says, but has since graduated to the c-Live APEX solution, which is completely cloud based. “We’re able to get off those CAMA trunks and be brought directly into the cloud.” This has led to greater flexibility for Logan 911’s operations, Sparks says, creating opportunities to process calls conceivably anywhere. “If we needed to spin up more phone systems in one of the neighboring counties it wouldn’t be hard,” he says.

The 911 services sector could finally see broad evolution as more government agencies understand how they can use cloud computing as a resource, says Carbyne CEO Amir Elichai. Changes imposed by the pandemic have also highlighted how cloud computing can aid this space. “COVID-19 is emphasizing this much more than before,” he says. For example, if a worker at a 911 call center were to test positive for the virus and go into quarantine, their absence can translate into a shortage of onsite manpower. Cloud resources could offer ways to work around such issues remotely, Elichai says.

Making IT and communications changes to 911 services poses significant challenges, he says, especially when it comes to dated systems. “You have to redesign the infrastructure,” Elichai says. “Everything is tied to on-premise, legacy based trunks and equipment.” While a legacy provider might take months to complete upgrades, he says Carbyne can push out remote upgrades to its clients with a push of a button.

Getting the public on board with the new platform did take some convincing, Sparks says. “The technology was a little slow for people to accept,” he says. “A lot of people are worried about ‘Big Brother.’ People were very leery; it’s permission-based.” At first, Logan 911 only used the enhanced location resources Carbyne offered. There was initial apprehension from the populace about sharing video and other information from their phones. Sparks says it helped to explain to the public that the sharing of information and video from their phones would be temporary and only used to better inform the responders.

The introduction of the Carbyne platform has led to Logan 911 considering other technology upgrades, such as changing its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, Sparks says, as it looks for ways to be more efficient. “Our CAD system is aging,” he says. “They no longer sell it.” The current system has been in place for about 11 to 12 years running on servers that Sparks says are expensive to maintain. He says it is common to see police officers use rather sizable mobile CAD terminals in their cars to check vehicle registrations and other information. Carbyne introduced Sparks to SOMA Global, which Sparks says offers a cloud-based CAD solution that could slim down that technology footprint considerably. “SOMA has taken all that and shrunken it to where it can run a CAD system off of a tablet,” he says.

For more content on updating 911 services and cloud adoption, follow-up with these stories:

Next Steps for Cloud Infrastructure Beyond the Pandemic

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Searching For a Cloud-Native App Strategy Amid the Chaos

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth has spent his career immersed in business and technology journalism first covering local industries in New Jersey, later as the New York editor for Xconomy delving into the city's tech startup community, and then as a freelancer for such outlets as ... View Full Bio
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