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Exclusive: Why truly integrated comms is the real remedy to ‘risk’

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Lloyd Spindler, Ascom’s Global Lead on Enterprise Markets calls for organisations to implement a unified communications approach.

Definitions of Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) differ but all are variations on one core principle. The need to identify, assess and take steps to avoid or manage any scenario or event that could negatively interfere with an organisation achieving its business objectives. 

These scenarios or events will almost always fall under one of three categories – they will pose a risk to security, worker/customer safety, operational efficiency, or a mix of the three. Impossible to tackle using one solution, right? Wrong. In fact, the only way to take on risk at this scale is a single solution.

Unified communications – Greater than the sum of its parts

In order to address risk, individuals and teams working within an organisation need to be aware of risk – both potential and actual – and be able to take any necessary action. Informed action. This cannot happen if information silos exist. It also cannot happen if communications is viewed and managed separately to those systems critical to safety, security and operational efficiency. No single system can support effective enterprise risk management. A single solution which unites critical systems, can.

A truly unified comms solution that integrates and, crucially, interoperates with mission-critical systems in near real-time, is the natural candidate and delivers the holistic view needed. It provides the necessary framework for delivering up the right information to the right people, exactly when they need it and empowers them to take the correct action in line with agreed standard operating procedures (thereby also avoiding risks that may arise from protocol non-compliance).

Ascom’s enterprise solutions are designed to interoperate with thousands of alarms, systems, sensors and devices for this very reason. Comprising enterprise-grade mobile devices (including ATEX-certified smart phones) with workflow-centric communications software, they integrate with virtually any existing communications and IT infrastructure (DECT, DECT-IP, Wifi, VoWiFi etc.) and third-party alarm, process, security and management system, to create a kind of ‘information ecosystem’. One that pulls in and processes crucial data in real time, breaks it down into tasks and alerts and effectively communicates that information to relevant personnel.

To illustrate how this unified communications ecosystem supports more effective risk management, let’s look at three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Personal alarm activation in a correctional facility  

A guard at a highly secure correctional facility requires assistance with an inmate that is becoming increasingly agitated, posing a potential risk to themselves and the guard. So as not to distress the inmate further, they push a silent, personal alarm on their mobile handset. A series of beacons located around the vast and complex estate, integrate with these alarms using infrared detection to log wearer movement. This ensures that when the alarm notification is received by operatives in a central control room, the guard’s exact location (not simply the location of the nearest fixed alarm point) is immediately known and flagged clearly on a GIS map of the facility.

The personal alarm system also integrates to a site-wide security management solution that encompasses everything from access control and perimeter detection to CCTV. This means that footage from the camera located nearest the alarm incident is prioritised on screen for the control team to view the scene and verify the alarm is genuine. The triggered alarm also immediately shows the nearest available support staff on the map and automatically sends ‘assistance required’ alert messages with location details to those personnel, ensuring rapid incident response.

Scenario 2: Process malfunction at a manufacturing facility

Pressure readings from a key piece of equipment fall just below specified parameters, indicating a potential malfunction. Left unchecked, the issue will impact productivity by causing a process bottleneck. It also poses a potential safety risk depending on the cause of the pressure drop, with gas leakage a possible scenario.

Because the process monitoring solution is part of a wider Ascom solution that integrates communications with near real time analysis of factory-wide systems, the KPI fail automatically triggers an alert which – through in-built location software – deploys the nearest available and appropriately skilled technician to diagnose and deal with the problem, providing them with an appropriate task list/workflow via their mobile handset.

As the technician works alone, servicing low/unmanned areas of the facility, they are also equipped with a dedicated ‘check-in’ facility on their mobile device activated manually when the technician arrives at the location to which they have been deployed and a body-worn ‘man down’ sensor which detects when the wearer is in a horizontal position, indicating possible collapse.

Scenario 3: An out-of-order elevator in a busy hotel

One of only two lobby elevators breaks down in a busy hotel on a Friday afternoon. In addition to causing an inconvenience for guests wishing to access their rooms and more significant issues for low-mobility customers, the malfunction also has the potential to cause check-in delays and overcrowding – the latter an issue with entirely new implications due to the impact of the global pandemic. 

The priority? It’s not just getting a member of the maintenance team on site to fix the technical issue. It’s providing additional reception support to assist with check-ins. Re-deploying staff to help manage access to the remaining operational elevator, prioritising help for guests less able to use the stairs. It’s checking that cleaning of ‘late-check out’ rooms, ready for changeover, has taken place as planned and has not been delayed as a result of the malfunction (due to restricted movement of the cleaning crew).

By unifying communications and hotel-wide building management systems – leveraging that ‘information ecosystem’ – an Ascom solution ensures an alert regarding the elevator malfunction is immediately issued to an assigned recipient (the alert distributed to others in a pre-determined chain should the primary recipient not respond within a specified time). Meanwhile, staff equipped with mobile handsets receive automated text messages over the IP-DECT wireless network with their new assignments to ensure guest needs are met quickly and efficiently.

Integration – The sector-agnostic hero

High security, industry and hospitality – three very different sectors, three very different risk management scenarios.

In each instance however, integration is the vital ingredient behind the efficiency and effectiveness of the solution. With it comes the ability to orchestrate the correct response and enable the right people needed as part of that response. Without it, any solution will stumble and fall.

The entire basis of our system at Ascom is therefore to close digital information gaps so that staff working at any level (and from any location) can make the best possible decisions. This can only be done by gathering intelligence from all relevant devices and systems that generate data, from fire alarms, access control systems and delivery schedules through to staff rotas, personal safety alarms, equipment and maintenance schedules. Essentially, if it can unlock information, up productivity or minimise risk – our systems will integrate with it.

The other important point to make here is that by facilitating integration to this level, our solutions also avoid a ‘rip out and replace’ scenario. Instead, the information ecosystem can grow and adapt to meet changing requirements. Any device, hardware system or software application can be added to and integrated with the unified communications solution at any time according to needs, budget and growth. Without any restrictive specification requirements.   

Communications hardware that’s up to the task 

As well as demonstrating the value of integration all three of the scenarios outlined also highlight the vital importance of near real-time, two-way communication. The ability to immediately seamlessly send and receive alerts (voice, message, audio or visual in nature) to convey task completion data, new assignments and any additional information pertinent to safety, security and efficiency, is fundamental to success.

Having communications and workflow management software capable of deep integration is just one side of the coin in terms of delivering this mechanism. Choosing the right mobile handsets and devices is the other. For a robust risk management solution, it isn’t always as simple as ‘loading apps’ onto staff members’ existing smartphones. Here are some important factors to consider:

Smart and sturdy

Consumer grade smartphones offer a high degree of technical capability, but they aren’t necessarily designed to cope with the ‘rough and tumble’ realities of many enterprise environments. Where reliance on communication can make a critical difference to operations, this can be a problem. For industrial settings, especially where there are potentially hazardous gases or materials, choose a smartphone that is ATEX certified, but for all enterprise settings look for ruggedized handsets that offer appropriate shock resistance and prevent potential ingress of dirt, water, oil, cleaning products etc. Suitable Android handsets will be certified ‘Android Enterprise Recommended’.

Battery life that lasts  

Smartphones make it quick and simple for mobile, especially lone workers, to communicate mission-critical data in real time. But not if their battery fails. Charging points may be few and far between and even where they are not (a hotel setting for example), workers may not realise their phone is running low on charge before it’s too late, or simply not have time to stop what they are doing to find a suitable charging point. Choose phones featuring best in class hot swap batteries suitable for long shifts. It’s one less thing for busy personnel to worry about and will ultimately help boost productivity by minimising unnecessary disruption.

Network flexibility

It is worth considering mobile handsets able to operate on both WiFi and DECT networks. Sole reliance on WiFi can be problematic. Network failures, poor coverage zones or interference from conflicting local networks can all result in communication channels failing or being compromised (from a quality perspective) at a critical point. Having DECT as a fallback channel means alerts and other notifications will still be transmitted even if the Wi-Fi network becomes unavailable.

Connectivity with surrounding environment

In addition to choosing handsets that will i) openly integrate with existing solutions and ii) do so flexibly over WiFi or DECT, it is also worth looking at aspects such as Bluetooth/BLE connectivity. Many standard infrastructure fixtures, fittings and devices now have Bluetooth location services embedded as well as being IoT enabled. Handsets able to interact are preferable.

In-built benefits

Finally, while a high degree of functionality can be delivered through the use of compatible software apps, it is worth looking at handsets that feature a degree of in-built functionality that minimises the need for carrying separate devices and prioritises those communication capabilities most essential to risk management. For instance, a handset which also performs as a man down sensor, offers a distress/personal alarm button and which features locator/tracking features can help save precious time in any emergency situation.

Enterprise risk management – Open for business

The benefits of adopting a ‘unified communications’ approach to risk management are clear. But the ultimate question remains – is it truly feasible? Is the level of integration and interoperability needed both accessible and achievable? Yes, it is.

There is no caveat linked to business size, sector type or available budget. The flexibility exists to cater for all shapes and sizes. The only barriers are posed by those vendors who remain reluctant to ‘open’ their technology and solutions, but these are becoming few and far between thanks to a wide-spread acceptance that proprietary technology creates undesirable operational silos. When it comes to effective, efficient enterprise risk management, the future is very much ‘open’ for business.

www.ascom.com

This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of International Security Journal. To read your FREE digital copy of the magazine, click here.