When the COVID-19 pandemic struck our Nation, first responders began to face a new set of challenges that changed operations for many public safety agencies and call centers. The District of Columbia’s emergency communications center, the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) quickly made accommodations to support remote call taking to keep call takers safe while continuing to be a one-stop shop for emergency communications in the Nation’s capital.
To ensure continuity of operations, the OUC is turning to FirstNet, an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce and the only nationwide public safety broadband network. FirstNet provides first responders with a reliable, secure, and dedicated connection. For emergency communications centers like OUC, FirstNet can connect telecommunicators in the field for large events or as part of tactical dispatching teams. FirstNet also supports in-person and virtual responses for Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforces (TERT).
History of OUC and FirstNet
The OUC provides 9-1-1 and 3-1-1 call taking services as well as dispatching services for police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS) in the District of Columbia. The OUC also manages and maintains mobile data terminals (MDTs) and radio communications for public safety in the District. The nearly 400 employees who work at the OUC ensure residents and visitors of the District stay safe and get the resources they need.
Call takers at the OUC handle 9-1-1 calls, emergency and non-emergency requests for police, fire, and EMS services at a rate of approximately 1.5 million 9-1-1 calls each year. OUC also handles 3-1-1 calls, including requests for city services from agencies such as the Department of Transportation or Public Works. Residents and visitors can also call 3-1-1 for inquiries about city agency phone numbers and hours of operations. The OUC handles roughly 2 million 3-1-1 calls per year.
With 3.5 million calls coming in every year, reliable communications are important for the OUC. Lajuan Sullivan, OUC Chief of Operations for 9-1-1 explained, “We are primarily the lifeline between the caller and the first responders. It’s important that we stay on the line and stay directly connected to our callers so that we can constantly receive updated information and pass that on to our first responders.”
The OUC and the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) began testing broadband solutions for secure, reliable connectivity over a decade ago. Commercial network providers have been used for years for data transmission for services such as automatic vehicle location and computer-aided dispatch to vehicle MDTs and tablets. Through a pilot system, Washington D.C. was one of over a dozen jurisdictions to test and evaluate broadband-type solutions for public safety. As a result, OCTO and the OUC saw the benefits of a dedicated network for first responders, and when FirstNet launched, the OUC was quick to subscribe.
Teddy Kavaleri, Chief Information Technology Officer for the OUC, has been involved in the agency’s testing and adoption of broadband services and FirstNet. He described what he has seen through the evaluation process, stating, “FirstNet was a big win for public safety – creating a dedicated broadband capability that has priority, preemption, and a lot more control.”
For daily operations, approximately 100 OUC-issued cell phones for employees are FirstNet-enabled. The agency is also in the final stages of testing FirstNet for in-vehicle MDTs, and they are in the process of transitioning those units to the network. Finally, the OUC has 70 MiFi mobile hotspots on FirstNet, and these devices are currently being used to support telework operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
FirstNet During the Pandemic
The services the OUC provides are critical for public safety in the District, and it is paramount that operations are maintained at all times. When the pandemic hit, the OUC began evaluating how they could keep their staff safe while ensuring services were not disrupted. They were able to spread out staff between various worksites; their main OUC office, the District’s Unified Communications Center (UCC), the Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC), and their mobile communications command vehicle, THOR.
Needing additional flexibility to keep staff safe, the OUC also set up several employees to operate remotely. Using MiFi devices on FirstNet, the OUC has over half of its 3-1-1 staff set up to work from home. The MiFi hotspot provides a secure, reliable connection, allowing them to operate as if they were sitting in the OUC center. Members of the Telephone Reporting Unit, tasked with handling police non-emergency 9-1-1 calls, are also teleworking and relying on FirstNet to answer calls and provide services to the District.
The information delivered through 3-1-1 is especially important for the OUC during the pandemic. The OUC worked with other city services to set up a hotline through 3-1-1 for COVID-19 resources, including information on daily testing sites, test results, and food services. As a result, calls to 3-1-1 have increased nearly twofold, and FirstNet is allowing employees to continue taking these calls and serving the community while ensuring members of the staff stay safe.
Karima Holmes, Director of the OUC and FirstNet Authority Board Member, described the need for a secure network, especially for telework operations. “Having a secure network – knowing that this important information that you’re taking is going from the caller, to the call taker, to our responders in a secure manner – is very important to us,” she said. “We are responsible for sensitive information, and we want to make sure nothing is dropped, nothing is lost, and that information gets to those in need.”
FirstNet is Built for Public Safety
FirstNet was designed for public safety facing any incident or emergency – from routine calls to natural disasters and unimaginable situations. Now, FirstNet is supporting first responders during these unprecedented times. Emergency communications centers like the OUC and the Alexandria, Virginia emergency communications center trust the reliability and security of the network to keep staff connected and able to provide their essential services to the community while operating remotely to stay safe.
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