Homeworking, video conferencing, instant messaging and some of the other, more progressive capabilities associated with unified communications may not immediately seem of benefit to such a hands-on public service as the fire brigade. But like every public service, where budget is always under pressure to deliver frontline services as well as back office efficiencies, something as simple as voicemail is still a key necessity, and one that Tayside Fire and Rescue lacked until recently.
Gary Bellfield, information and communications technology manager at Tayside Fire and Rescue, told Computer Weekly the lack of voicemail was a major problem that needed overcoming, particularly within the context of its local government responsibilities. "We needed to ensure the quick and efficient flow of information by whatever means were required to the right operational staff as quickly as possible," he said.
As one of eight fire authorities in Scotland, headquartered in Dundee, serving 400,000 people and covering 7,000 square kilometres with 750 staff, who work out of six permanently staffed and 18 volunteer staff-run fire stations, Tayside has to spend most of its budget on its people and frontline equipment. But Bellfield said that an ongoing project to update its Microsoft Exchange environment presented the perfect opportunity for the organisation to look at its legacy telecommunications infrastructure.
During this time and Tayside's ongoing technology programme to refresh existing parts of its Microsoft environment, Bellfield learned about the unified communications components of the platform and found it provided a cost-effective way for the organisation to access the latest communications functionality, without having to rip and replace its existing infrastructure.
Tayside's Nortel Meridian Option 11 Private Branch Exchange (PBX) system and mobile phone plan provided only basic phone service and Bellfield said it was becoming prohibitive to extend its functionality because the organisation had to hire a consultant to make any changes. He said that last time Tayside wanted to implement a single analogue extension in one of its fire stations, it spent more than £4,500.
The organisation deployed a unified communications platform built on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007. As a result, the organisation has improved communications links by offering features like voicemail, facilitated greater mobility, raised the competency of its firefighters and reduced costs through increased operational control.
In March 2007, Tayside Fire technical engineers installed Exchange Server 2007 Enterprise Edition on a single HP ProLiant ML370 G5 server computer running the Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise x64 Edition operating system.
In April 2007, the team installed Office Communications Server 2007 on another HP ProLiant server Server 2003 R2 Enterprise x64 Edition. The engineers deployed two additional HP ProLiant ML370 G5 server computers running the Windows Server 2003 Standard x64 Edition operating system. One server computer hosts the Mediation Server role that facilitates communication between Office Communications Server 2007 and the Dialogic Media Gateway. The gateway, in turn, communicates with the organisation's PBX system. The team set up the other server computer in the perimeter network to support the Access Edge Server, Audio/Video Edge Server, and Web Conferencing Edge Server roles. These servers support features such as remote user connectivity, instant messaging and multimedia conferences.
After engineers installed Office Communicator 2007 on portable computers and five servers running Citrix Presentation Server, employees were issued a voice over IP device (VoIP). Three managers were also issued Palm Treo smartphones to help facilitate remote access through Microsoft Office Communicator Mobile. The smartphones connect directly with Exchange Server 2007 to deliver access to wireless voice, e-mail, the web and Microsoft Office Mobile applications.
Today, all Tayside employees use Office Communications Server 2007 to access presence and IM features, but not everyone has access to the VoIP and video features at this time. Bellfield said full deployment would be complete by the end of March 2008 as part of a technology refresh programme to replace all existing thin clients with ultra-small-form-factor PCs.
For example, he said, using Office Communications Server 2007, Tayside now broadcasts training sessions to multiple stations so that trainers don't have to drive two or three hours to get to their destination. Bellfield said: "As a result, we'll be able to provide more training, which will raise the competency level of our firefighters."
He said the system also facilitated greater productivity with audio or multimedia web conferences, integrated voicemail and e-mail management with Outlook 2007, the ability to work remotely, and federation to other Microsoft unified communications platforms using organisations for further savings through wider use of free IP-based calls.
Bellfield added: "In a communications context, we are an even more joined-up organisation with the new unified communications investment and our level of responsiveness is higher than ever before. In terms of the ability to contact people and know someone's availability, the systems we now have are very attuned to respond as effectively and quickly as possible."