Deployment of “emergency communication capabilities” has been on the University of Toronto’s (U of T) wish list for a very long time.

That wish is now a reality.

The post-secondary institution has partnered with Bell Canada to roll out a new Emergency Response Management Solution (ERMS).

In times of crisis, this software communications tool will help the university’s emergency responders communicate more effectively, according to Debbie Stewart, director of telecommunications at U of T.

The new system, Stewart said, will help the University provide a safe environment for its large and diverse community.

Hosted by Bell Canada, the new crisis communication system was developed by Oakville, Ont.-based ERMS Corp., which was founded in 2002 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

The U of T’s ERMS program resides on Bell servers. At the university, those in charge of emergency communication can securely log on and start contacting people through multiple channels: cell phone, e-mail, PDA or fax.

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, said Stewart. “Right now it is series of people pulling paper documents with a long list of telephone numbers and calling people individually.”

She said ERMS sends the same message to everybody at the same time, without losing information in the transmission. “The challenge is keeping contact information always updated.”

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, said Renato Discenza, senior vice-president of enterprise group sales for Bell Canada. Other potential users of ERMS include insurance companies, emergency services and municipalities.

Dicenza said ERMS significantly speeds up emergency response times. Typically, it could take anything from hours to days for emergency responders to contact everyone in a company, ensure safety and disseminate information. With ERMS, response times have gone down to hours and minutes, he said.

One analyst points out that the ERMS rollout at U of T focuses on the human element – and that’s different from a lot of disaster recovery planning. “Often in organizations the tendency is to focus on data [recovery] and then material recovery. Human resources is a passing interest,” said George Goodall, research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

However, he did have some concerns around the ERMS product, such as its ability to integrate with large enterprise databases. He also said ERMS is very difficult to test. “With other outsourced solutions [you can] put in SLAs (services level agreements) that have [auditable] numbers. With a system like [ERMS] we don’t know if it really works until we have a disaster.”

Discenza said ERMS hooks into the Human Resources database for weekly updates of moves, additions and changes. He said Bell’s CNO (Customer Network Operations) help desk and Voice Select handle any SLAs.

Currently, the U of T is piloting ERMS with its campus police and others with emergency responsibilities. The university has purchased subscription for 500 users that will eventually include after-hours trades and building maintenance staff at the St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough campuses.

Stewart expects ERMS to be fully in place sometime next year but hopes she doesn’t have to use it.

Related links:

City of Kingston automates its emergency dispatching services

Instant communication key to patient safety

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