Things have gotten a lot quieter in the Fort Worth/Tarrant County Joint Emergency Operations Center (JEOC) in Texas. But the change isn’t necessarily due to a lack of incidents. The center has upgraded its entire communications network, allowing users from multiple agencies to monitor radio channels and document events silently through computer workstations.

Managing an ever-increasing noise level was the key factor in the overhaul, according to Juan Ortiz, emergency management coordinator with Fort Worth’s Emergency Management Office. The project included a radio-over-IP tool, integrated audio-video conferencing and a Web-based crisis information management system.

“One of the challenges was when you have ... radios at the workstations, you have a competition of audio,” Ortiz said. “Part of our solution was to bring that audio to the [computer] and let that user decide what they want to listen to.”

JEOC officials opted for RadioConnect for Sametime, a social software tool from IBM and UnifiedEdge that allows operators to listen to multiple channels at a computer using a headset. Ortiz said the tool cost roughly $230,000, a price tag that included some of the infrastructure, such as antennas and cables that were installed.

The computer-based radio monitoring tool also gives users the ability to instant message with those on the system, opening up a variety of communication options during a crisis situation.

In addition, the radio-over-IP technology allows operators to identify the actual person communicating, his or her rank and other details not previously discernable when monitoring chatter on a radio. Combined with ESi’s WebEOC network infrastructure and AVI-SPL’s conferencing solution, emergency response has been modernized at the Fort Worth and Tarrant County JEOC.

While the individual technologies being used at the JEOC aren’t new, the combination of them isn’t widespread among emergency operations centers, according to Ortiz.

Caleb Barlow, IBM’s director of unified communications and collaboration, agreed and said that while some fire and police departments might have singular pieces of these technologies, Fort Worth and Tarrant County’s JEOC is the only public safety project he has seen that has put them all together in one system.

“The concept here is brain-dead simple ... and there are bits and pieces of this [technology] that have been around for a while,” Barlow said. “But this project looked at how to operate across the board. Half of that is the technology, but the other half that is just as impressive is the logistics, politics and standardization that the city rolled out across all these. That’s a huge accomplishment.”

Flexibility Is a Key Benefit

WebEOC provided the JEOC with flexibility it hadn’t had before. Ortiz explained that in the past, visiting officials who needed to monitor a crisis could often cause logistical problems because they weren’t able to access the facility’s network. Something as easy as printing a document meant a visitor had to have someone else print it.

But frustrations like that are no longer typical occurrences.

“The network now allows us to bring city and non-city folks into our Emergency Operations Center environment,” Ortiz said. “We wanted to make sure everyone coming into the facility felt like they were in a facility that belonged to them. If you are a city employee, or even a credentialed employee, you can log in to any of our workstations and have all the tools you need right there.”

Kick-Off Just in Time

The JEOC’s system had its first real test in February during NFL Super Bowl festivities. The trio of new technologies went online the Sunday before the Super Bowl. Arlington, Texas, was home to the actual game, but Fort Worth also was busy with a number of Super Bowl-related events. One of the biggest events was cable sports network ESPN using the city’s Sundance Square for one of its broadcast areas.

Combined with record-breaking cold weather and approximately 130 water lines bursting, officials at the JEOC had their hands full, with personnel from more than 40 local, state and federal agencies using the JEOC for various monitoring and operations.

Ortiz said that while he was confident the situation could have been handled without the new technology, it certainly helped bring calm to the situation.

“It enabled us to quickly and easily bring groups of folks together that don’t normally work with each other and come up with solutions responding to all the incidents,” Ortiz said. “Toward the end of [Super Bowl] week, we had 50 people at one time using the solution — and right there alone that is 20 more users than we would have normally had.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.