firefighters responding in Hurricane Harvey (michelmond/

Where 911 calls are always answered -- even in hurricanes

When hurricanes Florence and Michael struck near Raleigh and Wake County, N.C., Emergency Communications Center Director Dominick Nutter saw one bright spot. If nothing else, he knew that 911 calls would get through to first responders even if the region’s power went out.

Since the center became the first public safety answering point (PSAP) to go live on AT&T ESInet i3 about four months ago, Nutter said his mind has been at ease knowing that the approximately 1 million calls the center receives each year would always get answered.

ESInet is an IP-based call routing service that the Raleigh-Wake center used to modernize its aging infrastructure, which included analog lines that were about 50 years old. It also incorporates the National Emergency Number Association’s i3 standards, the basis for public-safety deployments of Next Generation 911. The system connects with major hubs nationwide so if one disconnects, another steps in.

“We just went through Hurricane Michael last night, Nutter said in an Oct. 12 interview. “If we were at ground zero and … we lost all connectivity, we could actually have our calls routed to Charleston, S.C." That new capability works the other way too. "When Hurricane Florence came through, we could have taken calls from the coast," he said. "It’s absolutely essential, and that’s what people expect nowadays.”

The idea is to establish a backup plan with a PSAP that can handle the city’s call volume ahead of an event that might cause a power outage, but it can be done on the fly, too, Nutter said.

Playing into this concept is ESInet’s ability to provide 911 call takers with GIS information, enabling them to tell first responders exactly where a call is originating. The center had that capability before, but ESInet extends it to PSAP employees outside its location.

“Right now, if there was an earthquake in California, if they were on the ESInet, they could route their calls here,” Nutter said. “We could get the call and we would just get the information to the first responder. Being able to do that is such a change.”

Later this fall, the Raleigh-Wake center will add texting capabilities, including the ability to accept attachments such as photographs and video files -- a major boon to the city’s population with hearing and speech impairments, he said.

“Years ago, they used to have to be at home to communicate with us through a TDD or a TTY machine,” Nutter said. “Now much of the hearing- and speech-impaired community use cell phones to text us…. But now with the ESInet, they are going to be able to send us pictures of what they see or could record something and send it to us, which will allow them to have full capabilities with the 911 center.”

Other areas are looking at ways to make their cities smarter about disaster preparedness. For example, Los Angeles is working with AT&T on a public/private partnership involving internet of things and small-cell technology. Deploying small cells to expand the company’s existing network will increase capacity to first responders in addition to services the LA Fire and Police departments receive as FirstNet subscribers.

In the future, Raleigh-Wake’s Nutter sees an opportunity to expand ESInet so that the center could run its computer-aided dispatch system over it, but for now, he’s grateful for the latest upgrades.

This is a big step for the 911 community, he said, calling it a “game changer” because citizens will be able to get quality service not just sometimes but at all times – even when disasters strike.  Now when residents call 911, "there will always be someone to answer."

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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