Miami-Dade Fire Rescue talks IP

By the numbers

$721,000 cost of Miami-Dade's VOIP system

1,800 employees using it

2,000 square miles covered

500 emergency calls per day handled by the system

$83,000 estimated savings in the first year of operation

$1.1 million projected savings over five years

When Miami police girded for protests during last year's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue ran 10 T1 lines to temporary police command posts and installed 200 IP telephones.

Spencer Platt/Getty

Replacing an outdated telecommunications system with voice over IP has given Miami-Dade Fire Rescue users more features and flexibility in emergency response.

'But first and foremost, it saves us money,' telecommunications manager Michael Crisler said. 'Government will almost always make a decision based on finances.'

The department expects to recoup its $721,000 VOIP investment in less than four years from operational savings, and its success has drawn other county departments to its telecom services.

'We have opened the first countywide 311 information center on IP,' Crisler said. It uses the S8700 Media Server from Avaya Inc. of Basking Ridge, N.J.

When Miami police girded for protests during last year's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue ran 10 T1 lines to temporary police command posts and installed 200 IP telephones.

In a demanding environment, 1,800 employees are spread over nearly 2,000 square miles at 65 fire stations in 25 municipalities. They respond to more than 500 emergency calls each day.

Calls from one side of the county to the other over the public switched telephone network are long-distance. 'The building I'm in now has three area codes,' Crisler said.

The old key telephone system had no central management. Buttons on each handset connected to individual outside lines.

'It was 25-year-old technology, so it had all the limitations of 25-year-old technology,' Crisler said. 'It was maintenance-intensive, and parts were not readily available.'

Migration path

The system had served the county well and was still usable but no longer cost-effective. So when new headquarters were built in 1999, the department bought an Avaya Definity Server SI private branch exchange. The PBX brought the department's phone system into the late 20th century and was easier to administer. It also provided a migration path to VOIP.

IP telephony'the convergence of telecom and IP networking'no longer is a cutting-edge gamble, said Avaya sales and marketing manager Mack Leathurby. 'We're starting to go mainstream with this.'

In the last 18 months, commercial VOIP service has achieved functionality, security and availability. It has enough of a track record to make a business case, and applications such as unified messaging are helping drive adoption.

Reliability, however, has been a drawback to voice and data on a single network. Then there is a single point of failure, and data networks are notorious for reliability issues. But current products, with redundancy and proper maintenance and administration, can achieve the 99.999 percent availability standard in the telecom industry.

Even so, 'it is probably not a bad idea to have a few conventional telephones for backup,' Leathurby said. 'A pure IP world is kind of a fantasy.' Some gateway still is needed between the IP network and the switched telephone network.

When Miami-Dade Fire Rescue started the VOIP transition in 2001, service was provided to outlying stations over frame relay links. Then frame relay was replaced by dedicated T1 lines.
'Now I'm serving everyone on wholesale trunks from headquarters rather than paying for individual lines,' Crisler said.

The savings were enough to upgrade the Definity server to the S8700 Media Server, which is located with the PBX to link to the public switched network. IP telephony functions are handled by Avaya Communications Manager software.

At each larger division office, an Avaya G700 Media Gateway provides redundant IP services and public network connections. The Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm protects both communications and signaling links.

The system has dramatically reduced maintenance and management costs. An IP phone on the network can be added, dropped or moved with a few changes at the Web management console and simply plugged in at a new location.

Crisler does not have to be on site to handle management. While attending a recent conference in New Orleans, he worked at his notebook computer over the conference center's wireless network. 'I was in the switch, fixing things,' he said.

One of his favorite management features is a daily top 10 list of the busiest phones and the longest and most expensive calls. 'If you keep the top 10 in check, you can have the whole process in check,' he said.

One of the most popular features among the users is Extension to Cellular, which bridges calls on an office phone to a cellular phone. The process, transparent at the other end, lets firefighters and officers in the field remain in touch through their office phone numbers.

The Communications Manager software pushes out to users hundreds of IP telephony features, such as combining faxes, voice mail and e-mail in a single Microsoft Outlook queue.

Estimated savings of almost $83,000 in the first year were projected to jump to the $200,000 to $300,000 range by the third year and total about $1.1 million over five years.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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