Call center opens to field Arlington Cemetery inquiries

Wednesday - 3/23/2011, 7:19pm EDT

Jared Serbu, Reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
DoD Reporter
Federal News Radio

Former 911 operators and other workers with experience handling grieving callers are staffing a full-time communications center established by the Army to field inquiries about funeral arrangements, burial plots and other issues at Arlington National Cemetery.

A new call center is one of several technology upgrades made by the Army Information Technology Agency (ITA) after it took over IT functions of the cemetery late last year in the wake of a scandal involving misidentified and mishandled remains.

ITA also has installed new technology infrastructure at the cemetery, including new computers and peripherals, but the implementation of the call center was the primary achievement during the first of three phases of IT upgrades at Arlington, ITA's executive director Donald Adcock said in an interview with Federal News Radio.

He said when he asked Arlington's executive director, Kathryn Condon, what her most immediate needs were, she said managing the huge volume of incoming phone calls from the public was a big concern, and that under the system then in place, cemetery officials had no idea how many calls they were answering or how many they were returning.

"We do call centers all the time," Adcock said. "What would it take for us to take our tier-one IT help desk technology to Arlington? We have a state of the art call center for IT support in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, and we applied that same technique and started putting in the call support system there. We're real proud of it. Right now, we're up to about 4,000 interactions per month."

The only problem, Adcock said, was that the Army's call center staff was trained in IT support—not handling calls from grieving survivors of servicemembers. He said he wanted to have a staff that was capable of handling that specialized task.

"We take that really, really seriously," he said. "We went out and brought in staff that worked counseling and responded to grief calls on 911 calls from across Maryland, Virginia and the District. We went after that kind of talent. We went out to some consulting firms to find out who best fits this mold and has all the right characteristics to deal with grieving families. That talent then went through some very rigorous training sessions."

The remainder of the first phase of IT upgrades focused on replacing Arlington's aging infrastructure with new technology, Adcock said. Phase two will begin to implement a new system of electronic recordkeeping.

"We're going to be helping them digitize and understand their records and really be able to tie their records together in one holistic IT solution, helping them take the magnitude of documents that date all the way back to the cemetery's beginning," he said. "How do you start making sure that they're in digital formats that are retrievable and manipulatible? We're looking at huge data tagging solutions for them, working with the Army Data Center in Fairfield, California. We're looking at different ways to do metadata tagging so that when we pull up a name or search against a record, all of that stuff is in a robust database."

The Army inspector general in June 2010 found that poor recordkeeping and antiquated IT systems were among the factors that led to the mishandling of remains and mismarked gravesites. Arlington's top two managers were forced out of their positions and Army Secretary John McHugh installed a new management team.

This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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