Fire service is quick with Microsoft comms server

A Scottish fire service is installing a unified communications system built on Microsoft's newly released Office Communications Server 2007 in a move aimed at improving communications and cutting costs.

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A Scottish fire service is installing a unified communications system built on Microsoft's newly released Office Communications Server 2007 in a move aimed at improving communications and cutting costs.

Microsoft launched OCS 2007 earlier this week, but it has already been implemented by a number of early adopters.

Tayside Fire and Rescue runs 24 fire stations, with nearly 700 firefighters. It covers the cities of Dundee and Perth, but also serves rural areas with scattered populations. Only six stations are staffed round the clock by full-time firefighters, while the service relies heavily on retained firefighters – who may have other jobs but remain on call for the emergency service – and volunteers.

The fire service was seeking to upgrade its basic PBX phone service to provide voicemail facilities and to support the introduction of Voice over IP (VoIP) without the need to replace its existing telephony system.

The new unified system – built on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, OCS 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 – is expected to reduce telephone costs by 10% over time. It will allow staff to manage voice mail and email from a single Outlook 2007 inbox on a computer or from a telephone.

IT manager Gary Bellfield said: "The fact that we didn't have voicemail was an issue for us, but we were unable to justify spending tens of thousands of pounds for it."

He added that making changes to the PBX system had required expensive consultancy services because it could not be done in-house. "The last time we wanted to implement a single analogue extension in one of our fire stations, we spent more than £4,500," Bellfield said. The new system will allow new users to be added cheaply and simply "in minutes rather than weeks".

Staff can also use instant messaging and track each other's availability with a "presence" function. "We've seen a lot of efficiency gains from being able to do this," Bellfield said.

The organisation is now developing an online training programme that can be broadcast across its fire stations through the unified system, which also supports video and audio conferencing.

The fire service began deployment of the Microsoft system earlier this year. The roll-out is expected to be completed at the end of March next year as part of a technology refresh that will replace the thin-client computers currently used by Tayside staff with ultra-small form Factor machines.

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