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‘Wind Tsunami’ Tests Public Information Call Centers

Integration of cloud computing technology into five of Virginia’s 211 call centers helped residents get information during a severe summer storm.

VDOT derecho cleanup 2_thumb
The Virginia Department of Transportation cleans up the aftermath of the derecho that hit the state this summer. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
This summer Virginia and other parts of the East Coast were hit with severe wind and thunderstorms that caused widespread power outages and left residents in need of supplies and shelter.

For Virginia, the most threatening weather incident this summer did not come as you might expect from a hurricane, but from what’s called a “derecho”: a widespread, long-lived windstorm with rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.  

Without official warning on June 29, a derecho swept across a large swath of the state. At the storm’s height, nearly 2.5 million residents were without power for as long as two weeks — the largest non-hurricane power outage in the state’s history. The situation was made worse by a long heat wave baking the region.

“What happened was a wind tsunami,” said Barb Putney, the statewide coordinator of Virginia’s 211 call centers. “I don’t think we got a drop of rain, and it was a 700-mile path of destruction.”

According to a July 6 report from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office, the two-day derecho caused 13 fatalities and 120 roads were closed. McDonnell declared a state of emergency in late June so that state agencies could assist local governments in their response to the storm's impacts.

To help Virginia residents seek cooling stations, ice and other necessities to survive the storm, the state’s 211 centers fielded phone calls from across the state from residents requesting such information.

Similar to 311 phone lines that function primarily so that citizens can request service from their government, 211 systems give callers access to social services information from government, nonprofit and volunteer organizations — with one simple call to a three-digit phone number.

Virginia’s 211 centers, which function as the public information line for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, are responsible for taking nonemergency calls that pertain to health and human services.

Putney said the state’s five 211 call centers are connected by a cloud-based platform that enables enhanced communication. When someone calls for information from anywhere around the state, the integrated system allows for staff from any of the five centers to take the next available call from a queue. All five centers share a Web database where the centers’ staff members pull information. So no matter where the caller is calling from the staff has the information the caller needs, Putney said.

Virginia switched to the Web-based database in 2008. Previously each region had its own database that would export data once a month to the state’s 24/7 call center located in Roanoke.

Last fall, Virginia integrated the five calls centers with a cloud platform by Salt Lake City-based vendor inContact. Prior to the cloud deployment, each of the 211 call centers functioned as siloed facilities that didn’t communicate with one another when fielding calls from residents.

Each center only took calls from its respective region. If a caller living near Roanoke made a call to the 211 center, the Roanoke call center had to field the call.

Before the cloud deployment, the 211 center in Norfolk would receive a particularly high volume of calls due to its location near tidewater. At times the Norfolk call center had more incoming calls than what it could field.

Moving forward, Virginia is creating contingency plans in the event that one of the call centers goes down because of a weather event or damage. Putney said the goal is to create plans that would allow call takers to relocate and work from another building when there’s a power outage. 

This article has been updated.

This article was originally published by Government Technology.

Sarah Rich is a former staff writer for Government Technology.
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