The challenge of maintaining the safety and security of both people and assets without compromising operational efficiency or customer satisfaction is an ever-evolving one – making the concept of ‘unified communications’ more relevant than ever before.

Organisations of all sizes are being increasingly challenged to meet tight operational schedules and rising customer demands, and the ability to integrate real-time communications with data from other critical systems has never been a more attractive proposition.

This is particularly the case in busy, high-demand environments such as train stations, where fast and effective incident management and decision making is not only advantageous but paramount. In this blog, we discuss what the benefits exactly are and how unified communications are best achieved.

What is ‘unified communications’?

Unified communications (or ‘unified comms’) refers to the integration of real-time communication services and tools such as instant messaging and video conferencing with non-real-time communication services including voicemail and email. In its broadest sense, unified comms can encompass all forms of communications that are exchanged via an IP network.

In simple terms, unified comms allows an individual to send a message on one medium and receive the same communication via a different medium. This eliminates the need for multiple systems and enables transport operators to streamline their communications and consequently boost productivity and operational efficiency.

What is the significance of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)?

It is important to appreciate the importance of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) in order to fully understand how unified communications work – quite simply it is the enabler to make unified comms possible.

SIP is a standard open protocol that enables numerous devices to connect and communicate with each other over a single network, with the most common application being for internet telephony or Voice over IP (VoIP) products like Skype.

SIP also enables transmissions to be initiated and received from any networked location – regardless of physical location – without losing the ability to identify the initiating device.

Why are unified communications beneficial for incident detection and response?

Unified communications are becoming an increasingly important investment for organisations that are looking to improve their productivity and responsiveness while reducing their IT investment costs.

The ability to integrate communications into a single IP-based command and control platform offers countless benefits. It allows operators to streamline their communications as well as incident response protocols by ensuring that those involved are ‘kept in the loop’ across various devices and mediums without the need for separate systems.

If unified communications are integrated with data from other site systems – such as process monitoring, surveillance, threat detection and access control – and managed in a single environment, the possibilities are endless.

How is that level of integration achieved?

Today’s evolved surveillance command and control platforms are an ideal mechanism. They are no longer designed purely to monitor and manage camera footage, but rather to combine and collate data from any compatible third-party data source, and therefore provide the perfect framework for unifying communications and integrating this facility with a host of mission-critical systems.

This has significant implications for informed decision-making and incident response, particularly when paired with workflow functionality. Workflows are an increasingly common and useful feature within surveillance command and control software – it facilitates detection, decision, communication and action as a holistic process.

What is an example of a situation that might benefit from integrated communications?

Let’s take a commuter at a busy train station who notices an unattended suitcase near the self-service ticket machines and uses a nearby help point to alert the control room operator, who then confirms this visually through live video footage.

To prepare for a worst-case scenario, the suitcase is presumed abandoned and the incident is immediately treated as suspicious. The command and control platform triggers an alarm and generates multiple actions.

An automated voice recording is played through the station speakers, reminding passengers that luggage should not be left unattended. Simultaneously, an alert appears on the device of security personnel (and to transport police if part of their Standard Operating Procedures) notifying them to investigate the situation further.

Upon arriving at the scene and investigating the suitcase with a detection dog, the security team is satisfied that there is no imminent threat and reports this back via a pre-set SMS code which automatically updates the control room operator and closes the incident on the system.

This example demonstrates the efficiency and effectiveness of using a single system to generate and receive communications, and to integrate these processes with broader operations.

What are the current barriers to widespread adoption?

Although the benefits of integrating communications into a single IP-based command and control platform are apparent, the concept does have a number of misconceptions.

There is a common belief among many organisations, particularly ones with existing telephony systems in place, that introducing SIP-enabled communications will be an expensive process. In fact, this is rarely the case as most organisations looking to adopt this option are likely to already have an IP network. Instead of opting for a separate telephone system, which can be inflexible and come with a hefty price tag, a small investment in SIP-enabled Private Branch Exchange (PBX) systems is a more cost-efficient option.

Among the other common misconceptions is that an organisation looking to adopt an integrated IP communications structure will be restricted to specific hardware and software providers – and be forced to purchase specific proprietary technology. However, thanks to industry standardisation and open APIs, this is not the case. Organisations can implement an open platform command and control solution and benefit from system and device interoperability.

How is the use of integrated communications developing?

The concept of a ‘surveillance communication centre’ is one which will attract a great deal of attention in the near future and is likely to see gradual penetration into a number of markets – particularly transport and other high-security settings where instant communication is vital. Improvements in network speed, capacity and connectivity, not to mention evolving edge-device technologies, will move this concept from a possibility into reality.