Recipe: Mix an archaic Meridian with an advanced ACD, and add several brainwaves You hear so much about 911 services these days, particularly with respect to Voice over IP, that you’d think buying an effective system for a large university campus would be a slam-dunk. No such luck. Providing our students and staff with effective emergency calling took years of effort and some inspired brainwaves. Listen to my tale, for you too may have to face the 911 dragon some day soon. Here’s the challenge. When someone calls the 911 centre of the City of Montreal (Ville de Montréal—VdM) from a McGill University telephone, the VdM’s database, which indicates the location from where the call has been placed, shows the location of our PBX. Useless information! That phone could be in any of 120 McGill buildings scattered across a lovely, 120-acre campus in the heart of downtown Montreal. Even if we passed along information that allowed the VdM to identify the street address of the actual location, the vagaries and complexity of our campus geography would confound emergency responders. All buildings have a street address, but this rarely resembles their actual location. In emergency response situations, fire or police or ambulances are unlikely to find their way. We need a PBX-based service that allows us to deliver the precise location of each phone in the event it is used for a 911 call—the same Enhanced 911 (E911) that you have on your home phone. Regulatory DefaultYou’d think that would be mandated by regulation and would come automatically. Well, think again. In the early nineties the U.S. government announced it would be mandating E911 for all large enterprises and public institutions. Software vendors leaped into action and were bumping into one another trying to get products to market. Nortel was in the game at one time, as were a number of other majors, plus independent developers with CTI expertise. But there was a backlash of resistance from large businesses that were opposed to the added costs. The telcos were unenthusiastic. Quietly, the U.S. Congress dropped the issue. Some state regulators now insist on E911 for businesses, but it’s never been federally mandated in the U.S.—or in Canada. Few enterprises are altruistic enough to implement something that is not legislated and does not add to the bottom line. Interest in the products waned. Developers now saw little opportunity for profit and most discontinued their products. VoIP Debate Misses the PointE911 has been in the news again recently, but mainly with regard to consumers. The U.S. has mandated development of cellphone locatability. And there’s been debate on how to provide E911 for Internet phones, which can be hooked up anywhere—but again, the focus is on consumers. I should know—I testified on 911 at the CRTC hearing on VoIP. Discussion focused on the vision that VoIP in the home would be a threat to the safety of Canadians, since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide the kind of 911 currently mandated for all telco subscribers. It was the incumbent telcos that raised the loudest outcry about the E911 challenge posed by VoIP—presumably because of their fear of competition in the residential marketplace. Centrex-type services came up for discussion, but the distinction between them and PBXs (whether circuit-switched or IP-based) was not understood, and PBXs were not mentioned at all—except when I testified.So don’t count on Ottawa to mandate E911 for IP-PBX emergency services any time soon. Our Legacy SolutionIn the early nineties we purchased an E911 product from a Texas company, DTI, which was fairly successful in capturing the early-adopter market. DTI’s system works together with our Nortel Meridian 1 PBX. When someone dials 911, the PBX intercepts the call and sends it to a Meridian M2009 telephone equipped with an integrated M2000 data card. The data card delivers the Calling Line ID (CLID) of the originating telephone to the serial port of a PC running the E911 software. This PC is located at McGill Security, where an agent is on duty 24/7. The PC then looks up the CLID in a local database, displays name and location information to the agent, and initiates a three-way conference call between the caller, himself, and the Ville de Montréal’s 911 centre. A typical conversation goes like this: McGill Security: "Hello VdM. This is the McGill University Security Department. We have a potential heart attack victim, Professor Brown, on the third floor of the Stephen Leacock Building. I will dispatch a red McGill security vehicle to the corner of McTavish and Sherbrooke to meet the ambulance. The Security Agent will escort the ambulance to the exact location." VdM Emergency Services: "Hello Professor Brown. This is the VdM’s Emergency Centre. We will be there in five minutes. Please stay calm." This system is still in use today, but some problems arose along the way. Problems and LimitationsThe most serious of these was that, much to our surprise, we exhausted our supply of four-digit PBX telephone numbers (Directory Numbers, or DNs). McGill now runs more that 12,000 phones off our PBX, and we have had to expand our numbering plan to handle seven-digit internal DNs. The E911 system did not support that, and the vendor had long since stopped supporting or selling it. In addition, we sought enhancements to the legacy system in the light of our actual experience with 911 calls over the years:Capacity to handle multiple, simultaneous 911 calls. Ability to voice-record all 911 calls. Detailed logs of all 911 calls. Self-testing of system integrity to ensure its availability.PBX ConservationClearly, E911 capability would be a key differentiator for me in choosing a replacement for that Meridian. Only, for the moment, I’m not buying. The PBX, 18 years young, is operating fine. It doesn’t crash. It has all the functionality that our population needs. I’ve managed to get commitments from both Nortel and Telus (our maintenance provider) that they will repair it if it breaks. In short, replacing this technology would be analogous to trading in your 1987 Rolls Royce for a 2005 Lexus. You know it must be done some day. But the Rolls is reliable, drives like a dream, is paid for, and is worth less on the market than the purchase price of the Lexus. Yes, the Lexus is sexier, has a lot of gadgets, and does have an in-dash DVD player. But the one in the trunk of the Rolls works just fine. And, the trunk is larger! We have successfully deployed small numbers of IP telephones in locations where we either (1) have no copper but do have IP-network connectivity, or (2) have exceeded the capacity of a PE shelf, which is not worth upgrading and expanding. On the other hand, we outgrew the native Meridian 1 ACD packages some years back. They lack many features we now require, are cumbersome to support, and require special expertise in order to get what reports we could. So I opted to spend my available bucks on a top-grade call centre system. We went through a rigorous RFP process and vendor evaluation, inviting our user communities to the half-day vendor presentations. We chose CallCentre@nywhere (CCA), made by Telephony@Work in San Diego. I didn’t know it then, but this purchase was part of our answer for 911. Searching for E911For three years we searched in vain for an adequate replacement 911 system. We came close a few times, but that darn three-way conference call was always the deal breaker. The E911 systems available with some IP-PBXs don’t come anywhere near meeting our needs. I could have purchased a commercial E911 system off-the-shelf that handled seven-digit DNs, but it neither delivered the three-way conference call nor recorded the voice conversation. I don’t think there’s an E911 system sold anywhere that will do this. We engaged a CTI software specialist to develop the application, but they failed to deliver. We considered developing it ourselves, but could not justify the expense. But shortly after the new call centre system went in, a light bulb suddenly illuminated at 1,000 watts over the head of Louis Richer, my associate director for Voice Services. "Why not implement an inbound call-control flow that mimics the actions of the E911 system?" Louis asked. After all, the CCA system allowed the administrator the flexibility of performing just about any call intervention, database lookup and call control function without special programming. Logging and recording were part of the out-of-the-box solution. All that was missing was a building block to trigger the conference-call part of the application. Meridian Saves the DayWe asked the CCA folks to develop the three-way conference tool, but they said they would need more time for that than we had available. Then, a second light bulb went on—this time my own. The problem was really with the inability of the old system to handle seven-digit DNs. Why not use CCA to intercept the 911 calls, do the database lookup, display the location information to the Security agent, and then just pass along the call to the archaic system to do the three-way conference? It worked! (I must tip my hat to Ivan Karagodine, an NCS analyst who programmed the CCA call flow and did the systems integration.) As I write, this hybrid solution is in beta test phase, working well. It will probably be in service when this issue of Telemanagement reaches your desk. The hybrid solution is not ideal because it depends too heavily on an archaic communications device (the M2000 data card), an unsupported E911 software system, and PBX features that may disappear when we abandon the end-of-life Meridian Option 81. It also has more points of failure than the previous system. But it works, providing coverage to all of our staff and students. The weak points should be removed when CCA comes through with the three-way-conference tool, expected later this year. Gary Bernstein is director of network and communication services, McGill University.