Katrina Team Recalls Emergency VoIP Procedures
December 07, 2005
By David Sims
, TMCnet Contributing Editor
Vendors and state officials are recounting how, in response to the needs of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, vendors and telecommunications providers worked with the State of Texas Department of Information Resources and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, were able to -- in a twelve-hour period -- expand the capacity of Texas' 2-1-1 hotline to accommodate an unprecedented level of calls to the hotline.
Similar expansions typically require a full month to complete. This 2-1-1 hotline assists the evacuees in getting information on shelter locations, hospitals, Red Cross locations, supplies, and humanitarian needs.
After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, over 200,000 people from those states traveled to Texas, to seek shelter in the Houston Astrodome, Austin Convention Center, various Red Cross and other community shelters, hotels, or with relatives. These relocated people were instructed via national and local news media outlets to use the 2-1-1-dial plan in Texas.
HHSC and DIR's priority was to expand the state's 2-1-1 call capacity to help to direct evacuees to shelters and other assistance. The State of Texas says the number of calls handled daily by the 2-1-1 operation increased from about 2,500 to more than 10,000 in the first days after the disaster. Since September 1st, over 225,000 calls have been made to Texas 2-1-1.
Starting on Thursday September 1st, a team of experts, representing HHSC, DIR, a telecommunications partner, eLoyalty and Cisco, met to re-engineer a workable solution -- and fast.
The increase in call capacity and management began with DIR moving excess capacity from the Texas Capitol complex telephone system to 2-1-1's VoIP network. Then, overflow 2-1-1 calls were rerouted in the Houston area to other information centers around the state.
In Austin, a new 50-telephone center to take the calls was set up. In a matter of hours starting the afternoon of September 2nd, the team designed a network with the state's partners that changed capacity and call routing algorithms, created new Interactive Voice Response applications, built intelligent call routing rules and created new operations reporting.
It was all done using VoIP, and all accomplished by 5 a.m., September 3rd. Due to the uncertainty of cell phone access from providers outside of Texas, HHSC set up a toll-free number, 1-888-312-4567, for disaster information that also used the 2-1-1 network.
"One of the strengths of the state's 2-1-1 system is the capability to adjust capacity, but making that adjustment overnight is nothing short of incredible," said DIR Telecommunications Director Brian Kelly.
Over the Labor Day weekend, volunteer personnel watched the reconfigured application day and night to ensure the expanded solution was operating without incident. More than 700 state staff and others volunteered to work the Labor Day weekend and the following week to answer 2-1-1 calls at the overflow Austin center.
Several states, including Arizona, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Oregon, and Michigan, also sent teams of information and referral specialists to help answer calls in Austin and Houston.
Due to the success of the 2-1-1 operations, this network has become the defacto standard for the State of Texas, and is in the process of being significantly expanded to accommodate additional state usage.