Suffolk emergency operations center

How Suffolk future-proofed city hall

Until last August, the communications and network infrastructure in the city of Suffolk, Va., were being held together by “rubber bands and paper clips.” But a network modernization seven months ago has given the IT department complete up time and the infrastructure to deploy future technologies.

“We’ve got new, top-of-the-line equipment and it’s all performing as expected,” said Ken Beam, the city’s CIO. Suffolk had been using old Nortel equipment, which had come to end of life probably five years ago, Beam said. The IT staff “were keeping it running with, let’s say, rubber bands and paper clips. They kept it going until we made the switchover.”

There were two phases to the overhaul, Beam said. First, the network infrastructure was rebuilt from the core switches out to the endpoints in 42 buildings, and then the phones had to be updated to the network. Overall, that entailed two new core switches, between 200 and 250 endpoint switches and about 1,200 phones. Those endpoint switches are power-over-Ethernet, meaning the phones are powered from the network switches, rather than plugged into the wall.

Additionally, all of this is housed in a brand-new $24 million city hall building, which had its own perks.

“We were lucky,” Beam said. “Moving into a new building, we didn’t have to worry about old infrastructure that was in place already, so we were able to build this thing from the ground up.”

Besides improved performance, the new system also improved on redundancy. Previously, the city’s single core switch and PBX were located in the same place. Now it has a two-site solution, with one switch at City Hall, the primary location, and the other at the new Emergency Communications Center, which began operations Jan. 28.

“In addition to mitigating that risk of being on equipment that was past end of life, they really upgraded their resiliency and redundancy across the board,” said Jim Pascarell, president of nfrastructure, the company that helped with the modernization.

Currently, the technology is being used for emergency operations.

In the event of a disaster, we won’t “have to send all the department heads down the road to the emergency operations center,” Beam said. “They can view everything on their phone screens.”

What’s more, the city’s digital radio system can interact with the phones. “While we’re watching the updates at the EOC during an emergency, we can hear … on public safety radios about how they’re reacting to certain situations and where they need help,” Beam said.

Possible future applications include personal videoconferencing, telemedicine between the city’s health department and inmates as well as video arraignments with the courts.

Beam is also looking at adding bridging services to the backend so that video collaborators can access the network not just from desktop endpoints but also mobile devices, Pascarell said.

“Renovating the core technology so that it will be able to support those new use cases when they come along” is crucial, he said.

The return on investment is high, according to Beam. Before, the revamp, Suffolk paid $50,000 a month for phone circuits. Using SIP trunking, a voice-over-IP technology, service now costs $8,000 a month. On the whole, the city expects to save $400,000 to $500,000 a year, although those numbers might increase as more video collaboration applications come on board.

“Rather than buying big, bulky videoconferencing equipment, we can do it on a phone now,” which is less expensive and  easier to maintain, Beam said.

Intangible returns include greater productivity and less down time.

“We can get a lot more done,” Beam said. “With the failover that’s in place, the network never goes down, the phone system doesn’t go down. It would take quite a disaster to take everything down for us…. We’re in a good place right now.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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