Niagara police boost productivity, collaboration with tech upgrade

Greater productivity, a streamlined workflow, and improved collaboration between employees are just some benefits Niagara Regional Police Service is realizing from a recent IT infrastructure upgrade.

The project involves an incremental rollout of the Microsoft Server 2007 system – including Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange Server 2007.

Productivity is expected to improve around 20 to 30 per cent when the process is completed, according to Akram Askoul, director of information and communications technology at the Niagara Regional Police Service.

This boost is partly the result of better integration between legacy systems and newer products.

With the rollout of Microsoft Server 2007 and Microsoft Exchange, the police force is now in the position to integrate its intranet, systems management tools, and e-mail, Askoul said.

Passwords for vital programs employees use on a regular basis is now been synchronized. This enables staff to quickly and securely log on to these applications each day without the need to remember several passwords.

Common functions – such as scheduling appointments – have also been improved with Outlook’s Calendar, Askoul said. Executives can send their calendar to others and determine who is available for various initiatives over the next few weeks and months.

Such integration between disparate systems and processes wasn’t possible with the Novell GroupWise e-mail system that the group previously used, Askoul said.

With the planned addition of Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server, he said, employees will be able to create and share documents in Excel and presentation notes in PowerPoint.

Documents are now available to the entire membership and anyone can add notes to projects on the go.

Askoul said the technology is being implemented in police vehicles as well, so officers can move away from manually creating documents such as daily activity reports. 

He said print volumes have been reduced by publishing documents on the Web and sending new versions of proposals electronically. This has also produced hard cost-savings for the publicly funded organization.

“We can now go before the Police Service Board and show we are being fiscally responsible by investing in cost-saving technology.”   

A hallmark of the project is it isn’t interfering with day-to-day operations.

The Niagara Regional Police Service – which serves more than 410,000 residents and 15 million visitors annually in southern Ontario – has been able to accomplish the upgrade without disrupting its services to the region, according to Askoul.

He said the police force enlisted the services of CMS Consulting, a Toronto-based Microsoft partner to train its IT professionals on the new system.

Custom-designed training offered by CMS has allowed the police force to implement the new system without relying on additional IT staff.

Such custom programs are growing in appeal as companies strive to reduce work-flow interruption, according to Brian Bourne, president of CMS Consulting.

He said in these tough times, when businesses are hiring fewer IT staff, custom training enables firms to get the most from their technology investment through better-trained employees.

Niagara Police Services’ says custom on-site training has cut the length of the training program by about four times.

Typically, a Microsoft Server training course is one week long, and the team needed four courses. It would be impossible for an emergency services team to make that kind of time commitment.

Instead, Bourne said, CMS focused on highly relevant aspects of the Server that the police service would be using every day and glossed over programs the group already had a handle on or wouldn’t use.   

The program helped the police service cut training costs by eliminating travel and reducing down-time.

It also ensured that regular services to the community were not disrupted, by allowing trainees to rotate in and out of the classroom as emergencies arose. 

For these reasons, Bourne said, while many customers think using a consulting firm for in house training is more expensive, it actually ends up saving companies money.

“For a police force that runs 24/7, reducing time out of the office is imperative,” he said. “An added bonus was that the course instructor was also involved in the project as a consultant, which means there was already a great rapport between students.”

The need to cost-effectively streamline communications also prompted Niagara Health System – an amalgamation of seven hospitals in the Niagara region – to adopt Exchange Server 2007.

This multi-site hospital group was an early adopter of the Microsoft system, which it rolled out with the help of CMS Consulting.

With more than 1,600 workstations and 7,000 mailboxes, the group needed an easier way to manage security, data backup and counter spam, said Mark McDonald, regional director of ICT at the Niagara Health System.

Before moving to Exchange 2007, the group experienced several server and e-mail outages and was running over capacity, McDonald said.

“As we’re in the healthcare industry, by definition we need to be up and running 24/7, 365 days a year. Patient care doesn’t respect the nine-to-five work day and cannot be delayed because of equipment failure.”

Cost savings was the main advantage from the outset, he said. The group was able to reduce its server count from six to three – also experiencing energy savings as a result. 

From a purely administrative standpoint, the hospitals could take advantage of better management systems and Web-based access to unified communication tools.

This empowered the tech team to manage all the hospitals more effectively and efficiently, McDonald said.

He said a very different situation prevailed when the old e-mail system was in place, as IT folk had to spend a lot of time maintaining, troubleshooting and reacting.

“We can now focus on new projects.”  

The time-saving program has also allowed the health group to engage in new initiatives, such as a clinical teaching program and allows it to reach out to more community clinics in the Niagara area.

Today communication tools are closely linked to productivity, noted Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research, in London, Ont.

He said many companies he speaks to cite the e-mail system as a critical component of their business.

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