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.

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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.