Team Keesler and industry set new Air Force standard for telephone service

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With the cutting of a telephone cable Nov. 15, Keesler officials culminated a six-month project to upgrade communications technology and "dialed in" to a new level of disaster preparedness.

The date marked the official implementation of the new Voice over the Internet Protocol (VOIP) solution for Keesler Medical Center. When Hurricane Katrina's storm surge flooded the basement of the medical center in August 2005, water destroyed the 3,500-line remote telephone switch. This switch supplied voice communications not only to the 81st Medical Group leadership and staff, but also to the 81st Mission Support Group leadership and staff. The weeks following Katrina found base officials busy researching a solution to restore communications capability.

Keesler leaders, in coordination with AETC/A6 officials, decided on VOIP - which uses the unclassified data network (known as the NIPRnet) as the transport for voice communications. Technicians from the local industry, the 81st Medical Group and the 81st Communications Squadron installed VOIP instruments and network equipment as construction teams completed renovating each floor of the medical center complex. Currently, the medical center has 2,250 VOIP instruments installed. When the renovation of the Mission Support Group building is complete next year, technicians will install an additional 1,200 VOIP instruments.

The significance of this project is threefold. First, VOIP provides customers with the flexibility to move phones quickly without the assistance of telephone technicians. "After Katrina, it took six telephone technicians three weeks of working 16 hour days, to relocate telephone instruments from the damaged Sablich Center, the home of the 81st Mission Support Group," said Senior Master Sgt. Steve Marotte, project lead for the 81st Communication Squadron. "With VOIP, one technician could move these instruments in two days."

Second, VOIP exponentially reduces the amount of maintenance performed, thanks to advancements in telephone technology. In demonstrating the VOIP capability, technicians initiated a three-way phone call between one standard telephone line and two VOIP instruments. After one cut of a cable, the standard phone line went dead, but the VOIP connection remained. The reduction in maintenance needs is very important, because it will allow for continued quality customer service even with reductions in force structure and the consolidation of communications functions.

Finally, communications officials are already looking forward and investigating other capabilities (such as Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration Systems) which would enable the base to use VOIP to communicate with first responders in the city and county. This ability to communicate off base with the local community will help to facilitate rapid recovery after disasters.

The VOIP project began in May 2006. It was a partnership between the Air Force and industry partners General Dynamics, INX, and Cisco. The effort demonstrates the base's intent to rebuild with the most advanced technology possible and highlight to the Air Force that Keesler is the Communications Center of Excellence.

(Maj. L. Alan Estes, 81st Communications Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Michael B. Hammond, AETC/PA, contributed to this report.)