Jerry DotsonApril 02, 2020

Keeping Veterans and Responders Connected During a Crisis

We’ve all been in situations where communications fail. Perhaps you’re on a voice call or trying to send a text or email when you lose your signal. Or you have major latency and have to change locations to get a better signal. For most of us, it’s annoying. For others, it can be life threatening.

If there is any place where Unified Communications (UC) can never fail – not even for a second – it’s on a crisis hotline. At the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Veterans Crisis Line, where Avaya has provided UC services since 2010, employees work around the clock to manage calls, texts and live chats from veterans in distress. Many of them are suicidal or are calling about a loved one who is. For those taking the calls – known as responders – the work is both emotionally exhausting and rewarding. Often, they are the last hope for a suicidal veteran.

In the HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, a live filming at an upstate New York crisis line call center provides an intimate look into the desperate situations of those served.

“If you tell me you are suicidal, I will send an ambulance,” a responder tells a caller.

“Can you talk to me about the images in the dark?” a responder says to a Marine who has locked himself in a closet away from his children. 

“Stay on the line,” a responder says to a veteran who has taken an overdose of pills. “I know you’re getting tired. I need you to stay with me.”

In another call, a responder tries to calm a veteran with PTSD, while he repeatedly clicks the ammunition clip of a loaded gun.

While responders try to keep callers on the line and talking, other crisis line employees are listening and notifying the callers’ local emergency services. The importance of unified communications is critical, where multiple calls or messages happen simultaneously, both internal and external to the call center. Any breakdown in these communications would be disastrous.

Responding to a growing need

Between 2007 and 2017, more than 60,000 veterans committed suicide, averaging about 17 per day. That’s 1.5 times more than civilian men and 2.5 times more than civilian women, according to VA research

The VA opened the first call center for the 24 x 7 crisis line in 2007 as veteran suicides surged. Since then, it has opened many more call centers and added workers and technology to help veterans in crisis. This includes adding data communications and a mobile site to give callers more options, and data analytics to help with emergency services. Over the past decade, VA has added an online chat feature, “press 1” feature, texting, a mobile site, and data analytics.

The crisis line has proven to be an invaluable resource for veterans and their loved ones. In one year alone it has received:

  • 4.4 million calls
  • 511,000 chats
  • 150,000 texts, and
  • 761,000 referrals

The VA continues to invest in the crisis line, with Avaya continuing to expand its technical capabilities, integration, and built-in redundancies to ensure that no veteran or their loved ones ever experience a lag or dropped communication during their time of need. This includes auto-call distribution to route calls by issues such as suicide, homelessness, women’s health or caregiver issues.

Integrated communications allow for calls to be answered immediately, so no one ever waits in queue, even over the December holidays when there is a spike in call volume. Data analytics have also been added to chats and texts so that an IP address is displayed and automatically translated into a physical address for emergency responders. This is much more efficient than when a third-party had to previously enter information manually and send it to responders.

Avaya also has added redundancies to the network and applications so that if there is an outage in one part of the system, another part will take over with no disruption to the call. If there is a WAN failure, such as a cable outage, the site is sustainable with an extra layer of backup from the content management system.  

Crisis line communications will become increasingly unified – where every location can operate as one enterprise – and smoother as we continue to strengthen the systems and create new applications, based on what call center staff need.

Avaya is proud to serve those who have served their country through the Veterans’ Crisis Line, but they are not the only people who can reach out. The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, anonymous and confidential resource that is available to anyone, even if you’re not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA health care. Anyone can call for help by dialing 1-800-273-8255 (then press 1) or text 838255.

Keeping Veterans and Responders Connected During a Crisis

Jerry Dotson

Jerry Dotson is the Vice President for Avaya Public Sector. Dotson oversees the design and implementation of communication services to support the various operations of DoD, Civilian, Intel, and SLED  customers.

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