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Rockford Benson – Ashtabula County

CIO transforms Ashtabula into a technologically secure modern county

Ashtabula County, Ohio, sits on the shores of Lake Erie, all 720 square miles of it dotted with quaint towns and picturesque greenery. It’s known for its wine country, covered bridges and—if you ask Rockford Benson—the down-to-earth friendliness of its 97,000 people.

Benson is a native son who came home to serve his neighbors. He’s worked for the county for nearly 30 years, and today, as chief information officer of Ashtabula County, he loves the variety of his work.

“One thing I like about county government, in general, is that things are constantly changing throughout the year, so it’s never the same thing day in and day out,” Benson says. “We have a collection of a lot of independent offices, like the county auditor’s office and the treasurer’s office… I’ve historically been involved with a lot of that stuff.”

Rockford Benson | Chief Information Officer | Ashtabula County

Rockford Benson | Chief Information Officer | Ashtabula County

A few years back, Benson got a job offer from another county government in the area. He was thinking about leaving Ashtabula, but then, to his relief, his home county stepped up and offered him a raise to keep him. Benson hopes to someday retire from his current role and hand the reins over to the next generation of Ashtabulans. But in the meantime, he can look around at the technological infrastructure the county enjoys and know he helped put it there.

“When I started here, it was primarily a mainframe computer with dumb terminals, and there were maybe a few scattered IBM PCs around,” he says. “But everything that we use now, like all the PCs, servers and network infrastructure, all came in after I got here.”

In case of emergency

Before Benson assumed his current role, Ashtabula County had six different 911 call centers scattered across its terrain—one for each city, two fire departments, and one to cover the remaining areas of the county. And each of the various police departments was its own separate island; if something happened that crossed department lines, there was no centralized dispatch center that could monitor all the police cruisers from different towns.

Today, there is.

“In order to improve efficiency and provide better service for the people of the county, we worked on a project to consolidate all of the call centers into one central one here in the county, with a secondary site remaining active in our largest city, Ashtabula,” Benson says. “Now we have a system where both locations are active.”

Rockford Benson | Chief Information Officer | Ashtabula County

Benson and his team completed the project in August 2016. The larger county call center now handles most of the county and all cell phone service, while the Ashtabula site handles landlines in the city. Each call center has the capacity to act as a backup for the other if one of them goes down. The county dispatch center uses a different phone company from the one in Ashtabula, and each call center has its own 911 phone trunks—special phone connections set up by the telco—so if one of the telco’s phone trunks fail, calls are automatically rerouted to the other company’s trunks.

Benson oversaw the technical aspects of this change, including setting up firewalls and ensuring the networking was arranged so all the servers and both call centers could communicate with each other. He also made sure all the police cruisers were able to communicate with the county’s central servers to enable more efficient coordination in the event of emergencies.

“There are layers of redundancy—it’s the same thing with the software that we use,” Benson says. “It’s all interconnected, so no matter what fails, it can always fail over to the other site.”

Constant connectivity

Along similar lines, Benson decided it would be wise to set up a backup internet service provider. So, if the primary internet connection fails, for example, the police cruisers, which communicate with the county’s servers through the internet, won’t lose connectivity, which would make the dispatchers then lose sight of them all.

Another motivating factor was that many of the county’s crucial software applications are beginning to migrate to the cloud. The county moved all its systems’ recorded deeds, surveys and more onto a cloud-based application in December 2014. In preparing to do the same with its court systems over the next two years and Real Property records in the latter 2020s, Benson realized he needed extra layers of redundancy to guarantee uninterrupted connectivity.

Rockford Benson | Chief Information Officer | Ashtabula County

So, when the county was renewing its agreement with its primary ISP, Everstream, Benson got the ISP to install a second physical connection; Ashtabula County, located in northeast Ohio, now has one connection that comes up from the south through Cleveland, where the ISP is based, and a second that runs along the lakeshore. That way, if construction workers accidentally cut the fiber somewhere, the county’s connection to its ISP will remain intact.

But that doesn’t address potential problems at the ISP itself. To guard against those, Benson has begun working out an arrangement with Spectrum, another ISP, which just finished construction and got its connection up and running this July. Benson expects to have the automatic failover from one ISP to the other set up by summer’s end.

“Spectrum already had fiber at our main network hub for other entities at the county, and they have state contract pricing. This made them a clear first choice to be our secondary ISP as they were able to quickly bring up the new connection and with very little upfront cost,” he says.

Not your average daily grind

Benson graduated from Ohio University, where he earned his B.S. in computer science and went on to join the county’s IT department five years later.

His position has changed seven times while working for the county—four of those were promotions. Right now, there are six IT staffers, including himself, and three are his direct reports (two others work for the county court system but in collaboration with Benson’s department).

Rockford Benson | Chief Information Officer | Ashtabula County

Now contemplating how to leave his department in a good place when he retires, Benson says the constants through his career in IT have been change and self-improvement.

“I am always learning, that’s for sure,” Benson says. “Not only is IT changing in general because of technology as you go forward in time, but throughout the year, we have a cycle of processes that are always changing. It keeps it interesting. You never feel like it’s a day-to-day grind.”

View this feature in the Fall I 2023 Edition here.

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