Canadian Security Magazine

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University of Toronto prepared for worst case scenario

Whether it’s an explosion, fire, kidnapping or earthquake, one of Canada’s leading research and educational institutions is now prepared to meet the emergency. The University of Toronto (UofT) is the first customer for Bell Canada’s crisis communications system, the Emergency Response Management Solution (ERMS), that allows the UofT Police Services (UTPS) department to establish and maintain contact with faculty, staff and students in the event of a crisis on or off campus.



May 31, 2006
By Jack Kohane

Topics

“The safety of our academic community is our primary concern,” says Dan
Hutt, manager of the 36-constable UTPS squad. “Our force is on duty
24/7 and 365 days a year, so effective communications during any
emergency is critical and this cutting-edge software tool goes the full
nine yards in helping us keep everyone informed quickly and
consistently at a time when information is crucial.”

Hutt and
the university’s director of Telecommunications, Debbie Stewart, viewed
the system’s capabilities  at the Mississauga, Ont. headquarters of
Bell Canada. “That was early in 2005 and, by then we’d already been
searching a long time to find something as powerful as this. We were
impressed,” says Stewart.

Following that demo, the
university’s administration partnered with Bell Canada to roll out
EMRS. “In times of crisis, this tool will help the university’s
emergency responders communicate effectively,” she says. “The system
ensures we can provide a safe environment for our large and diverse
population.”

Currently, the university has 70,000 students on
three campuses — in downtown Toronto’s 110-acre site in over 180
buildings, as well as in Scarborough (33 buildings) and Mississauga (44
buildings) — with more than more than 2,500 academic staff, 150
librarians, almost 470 lecturers and instructors and approximately
5,000 support staff. 

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The research and development for the
communication system was conducted over a two-year period by ERMS
Corp., an Oakville, Ont.-based software developer founded in 2002 in
response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

ERMS
is Internet-based and housed on Bell Canada’s secure servers in three
locations: Toronto, Montréal and Quebec City, thus providing security
options in a scenario that if one server goes down, the system
automatically switches to one of the other two for continuity during a
major campus catastrophe.

Those charged with the responsibility
of emergency communications at the university  can log on and start
contacting hundreds, even thousands of “need-to-know” staff members,
including assigned backup contacts in case the primary member can’t be
located, through multiple channels — cellphones, e-mail, BlackBerries
or by fax. Notifications can be sent to large audiences using text to
speech (TTS) or digitized voice messages. Messages may also be sent to
smaller targets such as individual response teams. Delivery requires
the recipient to enter a PIN before receiving the message.

“ERMS
can be used effectively ”“ not just by educational institutions — but by
anyone who has to contact a large number of people in a short period of
time, during any event, man-made or natural,” says Renato Discenza,
Bell Canada’s senior vice-president of enterprise group sales. “They
need to deliver accurate information and instructions through a wide
variety of devices and connectivity, and this type of end-to-end
information communications technology solution will enable the
university to focus its resources on managing the events and responses
of their employees and students to enable swift action."

The
ability of ERMS to synch with an organization’s contact information
database will be a great time saver and make for quicker response times
by emergency responders, Hutt notes. “Before the implementation of the
system here, if a serious event occurred, we had a series of people
pulling paper documents with long lists of telephone numbers; then
calling people individually. Not very reliable, as those documents
might be housed in an inaccessible burning building. Now we’re using
21st century technology as a key component of our emergency contingency
plans. The main challenge is keeping contact information always
updated.”

Tasked with executing the system across UofT, David
Black explains that although ERMS is complex in design, it’s also
user-friendly. “There’s little downtime in training personnel to
navigate its suite of functions and linkages,” he nods. “The ERMS
prototype is being tested by our campus police and implementation is
being phased in on the St. George campus, beginning with after-hours
trades and building maintenance staff; further phases include the
senior university executive and emergency contacts for all our three
campuses, which should be up and running across the university’s
network by 2006.”    

ERMS is organized and pre-programmed
with each divisional crisis response plan stored within the program,
Black explains. The software can reach a range of communications
devices, increasing the probability of reaching every designated
contact in a timely manner. The system also generates status reports
that can be distributed by e-mail or published as PDFs, and accessible
for a specified period of time to ensure that older, inaccurate
information is deleted. All communications are logged and can be
reviewed for effectiveness in the aftermath of a critical event.

The ERMS software package consists of six modules, each sharing the identical critical contacts database.
Intended
to provide full crisis response and control in both an in-crisis and
pre-event response mode, “Crisis Manager” (combining both web and voice
applications) is the key module upon which the others hinge, points out
Sylvain Rollin, director of Partnerships Sales Support for ERMS Corp.
“From the integration of an automated Event Log to the production and
dissemination of Event Status Reports, every emergency response and
control requirement is fully supported,” he states.

Allowing a
single gateway number that all stakeholders may tap into to report
real-time information on their status, “Roll Call” can be initiated for
a single site or group of sites depending on the nature of the event.
At any point in time after initiation of a roll call, an outbound call
can be delivered to those employees and stakeholders that belong to the
facility but have not reported in. Status reports are available via the
ERMS web interface reflecting the current status of a roll call,
including who has reported in as okay or not okay, and if any voice
messages have been received.   

Enhancing an organization’s
ability to communicate with employees and stakeholders during a crisis
through the integration of advanced voice and computer technology, the
“messenger” module utilizes speech synthesis technology, in which typed
messages are converted into voice messages delivered to standard
voice-enabled devices.

“HotLine,” featuring web and voice
applications, allows an organization to provide a centralized toll-free
number that stakeholders can access to obtain real-time information on
the status of business. Stakeholders can also report their current
status if a roll call has been initiated. If an employee has a problem,
this is automatically recorded and the personnel department can
follow-up to assist with corrective action. “Hot Line” also informs
whether a site is or is not operational.

Web-based “HotDocs”
acts as the principal repository for crisis-related documents that can
be accessed by users. Storing the documents at a remote location from
the primary operating site ensures an organization can retrieve vital
information should an event require staff vacate the primary site for
any reason.

“Personal Communicator” lets employees manage a
contact list with two phone numbers per contact. In an emergency, an
employee can call the “Personal Communicator” phone number, record a
message and have it delivered immediately to all individuals on their
contact list.

“An advanced communications system like ERMS has
been on my wish-list for years,” says Hutt, adding that other Ontario
universites and colleges, as well as the provincial and federal
governments are viewing with interest how the system’s deployment
unfolds at UofT. “In my view, there’s no peer to ERMS. There may be
other auto-dialers on the market, but nothing comes close to this
system in offering a spectrum of communications tools to carry out a
well-planned crisis management strategy.”