Town's VoIP net delivers Amber alert system

Few incidents can raise community angst, awareness and action like a missing-child report. So when the town of Herndon had a chance to implement the national child-abduction warning system known as "Code Amber" last fall, it went all out, converging its telecom, e-mail and data networks into a high-speed VoIP environment to support the new application.

"The project could have been done without using VoIP, but it would have been much more complicated and costly," says Bill Ashton, director of IT for Herndon. "What we were looking for was complete control of the environment from the phones to the switches, and we get that with our implementation."

In a nutshell, the fiber-based network is spread over seven locations and is anchored by 12 Cisco 3550 switches, four Cisco 2950 Catalyst switches and one Cisco 6509 switch. Inside the buildings, the network supports 200 desktops linked to 100M bit/sec LANs, and connections between the buildings operate at gigabit speeds, Ashton says. All the town's 200-plus employees have Cisco 7940 or 7960 IP phones.

Herndon bought the Code Amber system from software vendor AAC and worked with systems integrator Reliable Integration Services to implement the project.

How it works

According to Ashton, the system works as follows: the town of Herndon network receives alerts from CodeAmber.org, an Internet clearinghouse for national missing-child news. The network filters the alerts through a database to cull information of interest to the Herndon region, and news of relevant cases are sent to municipal employees' Cisco Systems IP phones. The phones ring with a distinctive tone that sounds like a siren, and, within seconds, text messages appear on the phones' screens. In turn, employees can quickly call up photos of victims and suspects, and other pertinent information.

The idea, Ashton says, is that Herndon road crews, trash collectors, building inspectors and parks-and-recreation workers make up a field force frequently numbering six times that of the local police force, so a wider network of people can be on the lookout for missing children.

Ashton says the system ultimately will push alerts to all municipal employee desktops and the town of Herndon's external Web sites, for access by citizens.

The Amber alert system is a partnership between local municipalities, law-enforcement agencies and broadcasters to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases. According to CodeAmber.org, broadcasters use the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to air a description of a missing child and suspected abductor. The system has grown in use across the U.S.: On Dec. 31, 2002, 20,670 Web sites displayed the Code Amber ticker. As of Dec. 30, 2003, more than 97,000 Web sites and desktops were displaying the Code Amber information, according to CodeAmber.org.

The savings

Aside from offering the community of Herndon, which has a population of 22,500 and sits about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C., a state-of-the-art Code Amber system, the new network has shaved about 30 percent off the town's telecom costs by eliminating many leased-line charges, Ashton says.

It has saved in other ways too, Ashton notes. "We had eight different e-mail systems, multiple voice systems and a massive phone bill. Now we can have a much more simplified and efficient environment," he says.

Specifically, the town implemented Cisco's Unity Unified Messaging software, which can combine Cisco voice mail with messaging products on one screen.

The new infrastructure also has provided a variety of other applications. For example, the town government has launched automated voice assistance that is available to callers 24 hours a day. Citizens access department employee directories, and government colleagues use simplified, four-digit dialing among agencies. Because voice and data networks are converged, registration for parks and recreation, and credit card approval for other government programs can take place more quickly and outside regular business hours.

The municipality also plans to launch a system that lets employees receive EAS alerts of weather developments or terrorist threats via telephone and computer.

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