Chicago checks readiness with offline test bed

Chicago checks readiness with offline test bed

Chicago's Office of Emergency Communications has developed a date code test
lab in which it can check readiness of the city's 911 system with an offline test bed.

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

CHICAGO'When Chicago officials need to test the city's 911 system for year 2000 readiness, they use an offline test bed that includes at least one of each component in the system.

The offline components have the same model numbers and capabilities as those used in actual production, said Ken Schneider, deputy director of technical services in Chicago's Office of Emergency Communications.

In addition to replicating the computer-aided dispatch system, the test bed includes the same version and release level of database, as well as PCs that are identical to the city's call stations.

'Most recently I've added equipment that will emulate the fiber-optic network, hubs and switches'at least one of each component'to the test bed,' Schneider said.

The city began its date code preparations for the 911 system in February 1998. It formulated a 10-point plan that first called for establishing a year 2000 team within OEC.

Team effort

The team includes computer-aided dispatch technicians, electronic maintenance and facilities management personnel, network services support personnel, and others working with the local phone company, Ameritech Corp. of Chicago.

Whether their efforts pay off will be seen the last week of this year, when representatives from all of the city's key agencies, along with vendors and possibly some state and federal officials, will be stationed at the city's 911 command center. This will let them collaborate on the spot if problems arise, Schneider said. The representatives are expected to work at the command center for at least one week into 2000.

The city still has some work to complete. Last year it completed most of the work that required only date code fixes, Schneider said. 'We were fortunate in that many components were still under warranty,' he said.

Chicago's Ken Schneider, deputy director of technical services, says the city still has date code work to finish.

The city is about 70 percent finished with fixes requiring software or hardware upgrades, he said.

The city's aim is to ready the 911 system for 2000, not add enhancements. The system went online in September 1995 and is sufficient for Chicago's needs, Schneider said.

The city received a residual benefit when it integrated the 311 application, the nonemergency request line, into remote workstations, Schneider said.

The PCs' operating system was upgraded from IBM OS/2 to a Microsoft Windows NT so the PCs could interact with the 311 system.

That also meant installing 475 new desktop PCs in fire stations, police districts, and fire and police headquarters.

Many of the 911 components have been tested for other possible problem dates in 2000: Feb. 28 and 29 because of the leap year, and Oct. 10, the first date with double digits for both month and day.

If a component fails, the system already has a backup. Six Compaq Alpha 2100 servers run the system, but only three are active at a time.

One serves police, another is devoted to fire and medical emergencies, and the third handles message switches, Schneider said. The servers run under Unix.

If the computer network goes out, the city will radio information to police, fire and ambulance personnel.

When the system works as it should, a 911 caller's phone number and location pop up on the screen of the call taker within 1.2 seconds, OEC spokesman Ranjan Daniels said.

Double dipping

The 911 system gets this information by dipping into Ameritech's Automatic Number Information and Automatic Location Information database.

Also on the screen is a two-block map of the caller's location.

If it is a police emergency, as is the case with most calls, the police call taker continues with the call. If it is a fire or medical emergency, the caller is transferred to a specialist. The call takers are all in one room, so the transfer is quick, and the police call taker remains on the line, Daniels said.

Litton PRC Inc. wrote and designed the custom computer-aided dispatch software, which tracks resources and makes recommendations on which units to dispatch to an emergency.

For a fire, recommendations are based on factors such as whether a fire truck just returned from a blaze and whether a truck is on the street and in the vicinity of the fire.

The dispatcher chooses whether to accept the recommendations and sends an electronic message to the alarm terminal at the fire or police station. Emergency units on the street can also receive messages via computer.

Chicago has $4.5 million budgeted for its year 2000 work and expects to come in under budget, Schneider said.

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