Technology Aids Tuscaloosa, Ala., Tornado Response

A citywide IP communications system helps the city implement two emergency action centers in just a couple of hours.

by / April 2, 2013
Tuscaloosa suburb the day after. Photo from Shutterstock

On the afternoon of April 27, 2011, a huge tornado -- estimated to be 1/2 mile wide at the ground -- moved into Tuscaloosa, Ala. The twister -- rated at EF4 with winds of up to 200 mph -- would leave a trail of destruction for 380 miles across Alabama, cutting directly through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. The tornado was only one of more than 350 twisters that smashed through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia in a two-day period, killing 358 people and causing billions of dollars of property damage in one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

In Tuscaloosa, 44 residents died and untold others suffered injuries. It was a dark day, but the city had done advanced disaster planning and installed a unified communications system, without which things could have been much worse. 

"We'd been preparing for emergencies for several years," said Doug Taylor, director of the Tuscaloosa Information Technology Department, "and the entire city had extensive training. About 50 city staff went up to Maryland for training at the FEMA center, and we had set up command centers so often that our staff could do it very quickly."

The quick setup was enabled in part by a citywide IP communications system running on the city's fiber network. "If we hadn't had the system," said Taylor, "we'd have really been in dire straits, because the voice over IP enabled us to place telephones wherever we needed them."

The city also implemented two emergency action centers in just a couple of hours, one at City Hall and one at the Police Department, he said. "Without it I don't know what we'd have done. We set up volunteer centers in mobile homes, right in the heart of destroyed communities, so we really received a great deal of benefit from the system after the storm and during the recovery."

The idea for the system came in November 2005, with the election of Walter Maddox as mayor, said Taylor. "One of the first things he did was meet with me and we discussed the implementation of a 311 call center for the city of Tuscaloosa. He said that's one of the things he wanted accomplished in his term as mayor."

To do that, the city decided to transition to a voice over IP (VoIP) telephone system. "Three Alabama cities -- Decatur, Huntsville and Auburn -- all had VoIP systems, so we had them come here and do a symposium for us," Taylor said. "Our department heads and managers were a little skeptical of this new technology, but after that symposium, everyone got a better understanding of what VoIP could do, so we put specifications together and went out to bid."

The city selected ShoreTel as the winning bidder, installed phones in the IT Department and then set to work on the 311 system.

"We implemented the 311 call center with ShoreTel's enterprise call management system," said Taylor, adding that the system is very sophisticated, and gives great statistics and information on calls coming into the city.

"311 became the city's basic switchboard," he added. "We tried to funnel all our calls through the 311 call center so people could get information quickly, and could also be transferred to their department a lot faster. So one of the first benefits is we were trying to serve citizens quicker and more concisely by trained customer service representatives."

Next, the city rolled out ShoreTel telephones in the City Hall complex and began converting one city department per week.

"The transition wasn't difficult to do," Taylor said. "The actual installation was very easy, from an IT standpoint, because the phones plug into an IP network."

And ShoreTel does a thorough test of the network, he added, so if a network isn't up to par or won't support a system, they won't provide the product. "So that kind of gives you peace of mind."

Taylor also said that while many people don't like change, the ease of use and features won the day. "After a month, they would fight you if you tried to take it away."

The new system's benefits were obvious from the outset.

First, Taylor said, it integrates with Microsoft Outlook -- and before the new system was implemented, the city didn't have voicemail at all. "It was a little bit embarrassing," he said, adding that the new system provided voicemail into Outlook and "made us much more efficient and effective, because we had a way of getting messaging now that wasn't written and handed to us on a little piece of paper."

Taylor said the system also enables receiving voicemails via email while employees are away from the office, and the sharing of voicemail. "We don't duplicate that message, it's just one single message that is available to everyone that I want to share it with," he said. "You really don't understand -- until you've had a call from somebody who has a technical problem -- how convenient it is to get that message and share it with everyone and get a response to that very quickly."

The initial implementation was finished in six months, and additional fiber was added later. Taylor says the system is on-premise -- and he thinks that's better than a cloud-style subscription. "We have all our equipment here at our locations," he said. "The systems that you have replicate each other on the switches, so if you have good connections like fiber between locations -- like a spider web -- you can actually lose a system and stay operational. Like if City Hall went down, the Police Department and Transportation -- which are in different locations -- would remain operational."

That was extremely important, said Taylor. "We lost our Emergency Management Department. The whole building -- which was formerly a General Motors factory -- is extremely large and it was just blown away."

This was also the location of the city's Environmental Services Department, which is responsible for garbage pickup service, and the tornado destroyed its offices and took out its entire fleet of trucks.

"We lost all of that and still maintained the ability to communicate on the rest of our systems," Taylor added. "And that's what people need to be mindful of -- it's a great business tool, but they need to be mindful of continued operation, and how that would occur in an emergency."

Now, some 1,100 of the city's 1,300 employees are on the system. "We don't have all the unified communications bells and whistles," said Taylor, "but what we do have here, we really utilize."

Photo of Tuscaloosa the day after courtesy of Shutterstock

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.