Philadelphia Beefing Up 911 Service for Pope’s Visit

A training center will be put into service as an additional call center for 911 operators.

Philadelphia Police Dept. HQ - Roundhouse

Philadelphia Police Department headquarters (aka The Roundhouse) photo by Beyond My Ken, used under a Creative Commons license

About a million people are expected to crowd into the city over the weekend for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. His trip culminates with a huge service on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — where about a quarter million will see the pope say mass.

With all these extra people in town, there’s the need for greater emergency services. The police and fire departments have already announced that there will be extra cops, firefighters EMTs and other first responders on call. And the city is beefing up its 911 call center as well.

“The 911 call center can handle most major events,” says Sgt. Gregory Masi of the PPD communications department. “But when we get into an event of this magnitude — that is, the Pope himself — we know there’s going to be an excessive amount of people coming into the city.”

The Philadelphia Police Department mapped out the expected 911 traffic in four-hour blocks, and realized it would need extra operators for the duration of the pope’s visit. So the PPD will be opening up an additional 911 call center, with extra operators, starting Friday. This isn’t about the possibility of a catastrophic event during the pope’s visit, it’s simply to handle the additional volume expected with the city holding hundreds of thousands more people here than it usually does.

The police department will almost be doubling the amount of call center operators on duty during the pope’s visit.

The regular 911 call center, in police headquarters at the Roundhouse on Race Street, will be staffed the same as usual. But the disaster recovery center, at 990 Spring Garden Street, will be converted to use as a regular call center for the duration of the pope’s visit. The disaster recovery center, a backup 911 call center meant to be used in case of a citywide emergency if there’s an evacuation of police headquarters, is generally used as a training center for new 911 operators. (They get eight weeks of training there before being moved to the real call center, Sgt. Masi says.)

Additionally, state law requires all 911 calls and radio dispatches to be recorded in case they are needed in a court case later on. NICE Systems, an Israeli communications company that has been the police department’s recording vendor for about a decade, is lending equipment to the PPD for the pope’s visit. A support technician/engineer will also be on call to troubleshoot any issues.

“We recognizing that a visit from the pope is such a global event it puts a lot of stress on a city,” says John Rennie, General Manager for NICE Systems’ Public Safety Global Business Unit. “Everything is going to be difficult, and our systems are mission critical to the success of the city to ensure they have an accurate recording of every emergency call.”

The extra equipment from NICE is already installed, and it will give the city an added benefit for next year, too, says Masi. The 2016 Democratic National Convention will likely need the same extra 911 call staffing in the disaster recovery center, and NICE’s equipment will be able to be used for that next year as well. An initial test of the additional 911 call center was successful, with more tests taking place today.