Over the summer, a massive extreme weather event hit much of Virginia, leaving millions without power for up to 13 days. The outage was exacerbated when the storm was followed by an intense heat wave leaving those without power sweltering in temperatures over 100 degrees. For public information and non-emergency service providers in the state, the power outage also hit their offices, requiring them to work from the homes and businesses of state residents that still had power.
Many states have 211 or 311 services, residents can dial 211 or 311 from their local telephone lines and speak to a non-emergency operator about issues ranging from unsafe working conditions, to pothole reporting and also get information about how to access government services. Virginia has had a 211 system in place for a number of years. Originally, the system was managed through a complex and out-of-date state phone system that was unable to handle overflow calling during busy times. In 2010, the state switched to inContact which provides cloud based call center services.
By moving to a cloud based solution, call center agents are able to login to the inContact system from anywhere there is an internet connection. This summer, when an extreme weather pattern called a derecho moved through Virginia, millions of people found themselves without power or information about how to access critical services like cooling centers. “It was like a wind tsunami,” says Barb Putney, state coordinator for Virginia 211 in an interview with CivSource.
“A lot of people couldn’t get into the office including me, so we had people working from other businesses with generators or on wifi signals,” she explains. Five of the state call centers that normally handle calls were offline for over a week. In emergency events like this, 211 and 311 services act as a conduit to help state officials understand the reach of disaster and also provide the public with information about how to secure necessities like water, or find cooling centers.
“What we started to realize was that people were unable to get to their regular sources of information, so we set up signs along the highway that flashed information about local cooling centers,” Putney says. With cloud access, state officials were able to respond to issues coming out of the storm and continue to provide call-in services to the public without downtime.
“We handled more calls than we normally do, even though we were working in this way and it was basically seamless to the public,” she notes. Now 211, is also handling in-state contracts with emergency services to support the same type of information continuity across jurisdictions. “We have had strong support from the state on this initiative, and it’s provided us with more than we could have hoped for,” Putney said.