Government calls get through

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, concerned relatives, co-workers and friends calling to check the well-being of loved ones faced busy signals and service congestion messages. But that was a good thing, officials said, because it meant that the people who really needed to talk had the lines to do so.

Emergency protocols called the Telecommunications Service Priority go into effect in emergency situations to restrict the number of lines available to average citizens. This caused the apparent outages in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas, according to officials from Sprint and WorldCom Inc.

This may have been frustrating for people, but it was critical that emergency workers in the affected areas have open lines, officials said. "Given the high interest in everything that's going on, you do not want your telecommunications getting overwhelmed so the emergency workers cannot get through," said John Polivka, a spokesman for Sprint's Government Systems Division.

The government also activated a special emergency network, established for times when national security and emergency personnel must be able to get their calls through.

The Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS)—first contracted in 1993—is part of the larger National Communications System, run by the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Va. It provides a separate network for qualified federal, state and local employees, giving them priority status over even other government and emergency personnel.

"You go to the head of the line," said Brenton Greene, deputy manager of NCS. "It doesn't bump anyone off, but you go to the head of the line."

GETS was most recently used after flooding in Texas earlier this year, but because it's a relatively new resource, many officials had to be reminded about the network after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the immediate aftermath, Greene and NCS staff members used the telephone, e-mail and other means to remind key government officials and telecom partners to use their priority calling cards, which were designed for use in emergencies. Emergency operations might otherwise be hampered by jammed communications lines.

As the word spread, usage went up, Greene said. According to one official, thousands of calls went through the network each day last week.

Three vendors—Sprint, WorldCom and AT&T—support the emergency service. Agencies whose missions meet certain criteria register to receive cards linked to a personal identification number (PIN) that can be passed out immediately or stockpiled for distribution when the need aris Once the network is activated, employees call a central number from any type of phone, enter their assigned PIN, and then they can place calls directly to anywhere and can be certain the calls will go through.

The network is undergoing enhancements and will not reach full operating capability until the end of the month, Greene said. But on the morning of Sept. 11, "the first thing I pulled out was my GETS card," he said.

Once the immediate efforts are over, NCS officials will take a look at how GETS performed in this emergency, but so far they are pleased.

"We're finding that it works phenomenally well," Greene said. "We're obviously going to look at lessons learned, if there's anything we can do better, whether we need to distribute more cards, whether we need to make the program more publicly known."

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