Help On The Line
On Aug. 1, 2007, at 6:05 p.m., hordes of Minneapolis motorists traveling over the 1,907-ft. I-35W bridge found themselves in a living nightmare as the main spans of the bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River and its outer banks. Approximately 100 cars and their passengers and 18 construction workers plummeted into the river and onto the banks, leaving 13 people dead and about 100 more injured.
City and state leaders declared a state of emergency, as mutual aid arrived from a multitude of civilians, hospitals, volunteers and agencies in the seven-county metropolitan area. Calls to the Minneapolis 9-1-1 center tripled that evening, according to John Dejung, Minneapolis 9-1-1/3-1-1 Center director, and the city got an unexpected chance to test the call-handling capability of its recently implemented 3-1-1 Center calling system in the midst of a disaster.
“The bridge collapse on Aug. 1 proved the 3-1-1 Center to be an invaluable aid in the response. The 3-1-1 Center fielded hundreds of calls from the media, well-wishers and those seeking to donate supplies or expertise, and family members seeking news on loved ones,” Dejung says. “Had the 3-1-1 Center not been in place, many dozens of those calls would have arrived in the 9-1-1 Center queue, slowing response to and coordination of the emergency.”
In January 2006, Minneapolis’ Telecommunications and Network Services Division deployed a 3-1-1 calling system that provides its 380,000 citizens with faster access to non-emergency city and government services. Although the solution was primarily meant to streamline citizen-government communication — giving citizens a simple three-digit number to call for information — city officials soon found it would also succeed in enhancing 9-1-1 call effectiveness by reducing the number of non-emergency calls to 9-1-1.
According to Dejung, up to 60 percent of all 9-1-1 calls are considered “non-emergency.” These might include calls reporting suspicious activity, abandoned vehicles or graffiti.
“There was a problem of inappropriate calls going into the 9-1-1 Center, which caused the limited resources assigned to the center to be stretched to almost breaking,” he says. “This had the potential to delay service to callers with a real need for a quick emergency services response.”
Effectively directing non-emergency calls is a challenge for contact centers, according to Minneapolis city officials. Being able to locate correct contacts and resolve issues in a timely manner is significant and requires a more flexible and expandable telecommunications platform that is easier to manage. “3-1-1 was a huge initiative for us, and we needed to implement new, emerging technology for that solution to be successful,” says Connie Perila, manager of Telecommunications and Network Services, City of Minneapolis.
Transforming city communications
The City of Minneapolis has 5,500 employees and approximately 3,500 phones distributed among the downtown offices, precincts and public works locations. Its legacy communications network was purchased in 1989 with an expected shelf life of eight years. In pushing that life to 16 years, the city experienced increasing costs for maintenance and service of antiquated equipment.
To carry out the 3-1-1 solution, the city deployed HiPath 4000 and optiPoint IP telephones from Siemens Communications, Boca Raton, Fla., with help from local Siemens channel partner, Black Box Network Services, Lawrence, Pa. The systems feature intelligent routing to facilitate faster access to skilled resources with the goal of providing higher levels of service, greater first contact resolution and simplified application administration.
The products provide open-architecture solutions based on several key technology and business goals including:
to allow employees to communicate and collaborate regardless of the device, network or IT environment they are using;
to provide organizations more flexibility in moving to an open-architecture environment;
to provide solutions that can be integrated into business processes; and
to provide solutions that are intuitive and easy-to-use.
Minneapolis’ solution distributes voice interactions to agent resources more efficiently. Using the 3-1-1 calling and e-mail options, residents can report anything from noise complaints to missing traffic signs to graffiti to low water pressure. Residents also use the system to report 180 service request types. In addition, citizens can more easily access government information on business or building services, visitor resources and snow removal.
“There are significant benefits of the 3-1-1 Siemens solution provided by Black Box,” Perila says. “Citizen access to city services and our ability to more effectively deal with city-wide information calls and maintain business continuity have improved noticeably. The systems have also facilitated our efforts to manage key information, track calls and provide services via voice, e-mail and the Web. All of the technology we have added has helped to make 3-1-1 successful.”
Minneapolis officials worked with Siemens and Black Box to plan, design and cut over to the new system. Because of the need to maintain key city services, the transition had to be completed with minimal disruption to the city’s communications infrastructure. The implementation was completed quickly, changing out the city’s 3,000 downtown office phones in one weekend. The remaining 500 remote office phones were cut over during a series of weekends over a period of six months.
The project was implemented under the direction of the city’s telecommunications manager but was overseen by two project managers — one from Black Box with a focus on telecommunications design, implementation and support and one from rClient, a Minneapolis-based firm specializing in critical project management for information technologies.
“It was an enormous undertaking for Black Box, rClient and the city,” Perila says. “Without the first-class expertise we received, as well as the versatility of Siemens’ ‘open-communications’ solutions, this implementation may have gone very differently in terms of our ability to upgrade our infrastructure without significant disruption to the city’s communications.”
Enhanced communication brings new benefits
The creation of a single number that citizens can use for government access was only one of several benefits realized following the system’s installation. With the new 3-1-1 calling option, 9-1-1 is now used only to respond to emergency calls. “We have seen a 15 percent reduction in non-emergency calls to 9-1-1 since the center opened in January 2006,” Dejung says. This means that emergency calls to 9-1-1 have a better chance of garnering quick responses instead of being placed in a queue while operators tend to non-emergency calls. “There is a greater chance that injuries will be worse due to delays, and we believe it is our duty to remove all the non-emergencies from the system in order to speed response to the true emergencies,” Dejung says.
During natural or other large-scale disasters, the 3-1-1 system also has the capability to field overflow calls to 9-1-1 and help with emergency management and continuity of operations, as it did when the bridge collapsed. “We realized even before the bridge collapse that the 3-1-1 Center could be very helpful for emergency management and contingency planning,” Dejung says. “The Center is a ‘pressure-relief’ valve for those who need to preserve some resources for time-critical responses.”
Other payoffs of the system include facilitating higher employee productivity and satisfaction, simplifying application administration through centralization and lower maintenance and service costs. “With the new HiPath 4000 and optiPoint handsets, we were able to dispose of old equipment that expended considerable human and financial resources,” Perila says. “We’re now able to better allocate our resources in an effort to improve services to citizens and city employees.”
Contact center operations also improved. “With our old system, we were experiencing up to 1,400 abandoned calls on a daily basis,” Perila says. “Now, 90 percent of all calls are answered within 20 seconds, and this means we are in a better position to serve the needs of our citizens.”
In 2006, the 3-1-1 Center handled 343,000 calls. The city saw an increase from 18,000 to 35,000 calls per month during the first year. “Our old system was not robust enough to handle that kind of volume. This increased capability is important to the city on a daily basis, but it is absolutely imperative in the event of a disaster or city-wide emergency such as the bridge collapse,” she says.
Most notably, the system has helped to increase service levels and improve citizen interaction with city government while also acting as a back-up provision for communication and continuity during a larger emergency.
Minneapolis joins a handful of other metropolitan cities that have successfully implemented 3-1-1 solutions, including Houston, San Francisco and New York City.