U of T installs Web-based emergency messaging system

The University of Toronto is in the process of installing an emergency messaging service that could alert key personnel to a problem practically the moment it happens.

The U of T is using Bell Canada’s crisis communications system called the Emergency Reponse Management Solution. The system can push out emergency messages or information to a predetermined group of people – the people best equipped to deal with a crisis.

“This organization is incredibly decentralized,” said Catherine Riggall, vice-president of business affairs for the university. Hence the need for a solution that reach people quickly.

The solution, which is Web-based, is hosted by Bell Canada and is accessible via a browser. A piece of connectivity software will be installed on campus, more precisely in the university’s facilities and services group which includes campus police. “The software will be installed on the police server, because they are the people who here 24×7,” explained Riggall.

The police will be responsible for sending out emergency messages to the predetermined groups. The recipients could be a few people or many more, depending on the nature of the crisis. If a student is attacked, for example, “probably a dozen people” would be contacted, including the community safety co-ordinator, the deans of the students residence and faculty, the provost, the crisis manager, any anybody else who happens to be on the appropriate contact list.

“Everybody who needs to get a message will get the same message through a variety of communication methods,” said Riggall. “We maximize our chances of reaching everybody.”

Until the system is fully installed – the university is aiming for within a year – people will be contacted the old-fashioned way: multiple attempts to reach people directly on their cell, home and work lines, or through e-mail. The Bell solution “is replacing a whole bunch of people making a whole bunch of different phone calls.”

The system can synch with existing contact databases, said Renato Discenza, senior vice-president Bell Canada’s enterprise group. “It’s a business rules-based approach, so you will determine who gets contacted when, with what information, during what type of crisis.

“What this allows them to do is put a pragmatic approach to notification for any kind of crisis or emergency,” he said.

The system has capabilities beyond being a contact manager, and the U of T may explore those at a future date, said Riggall.

“As time goes on, we plan to expand the use to the storage of individual building plans – both the crisis plan and the physical building plan – so that we would have drawings maintained on the Web,” she said.

By having access to blueprints, emergency personnel could quickly determine where the nearest gas or power point is, for example.

The system will be tested first on the U of T’s main campus in downtown Toronto, but will be effective across its other facilities in Mississauga and Scarborough.

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