Skip to content

Inovation Award: Northern Communications Services Inc. / True Steel Security

"When we come up with these things, our first question is always, 'How can we help our customers?'"

Through its creative solutions to widespread problems, Northern Communication's innovations are helping people to live better lives, longer.

The Sudbury-based call management services firm has pioneered various means to improve the quality of care to clients from helping seniors and the medically fragile live alone, to handling 911 calls and even to improving one's chances in emergency situations.

"When we come up with these things, our first question is always, 'How can we help our customers?'" says Mike Shantz, vice-president of operations.

Over the last five decades, Northern Communications has transformed from what Shantz refers to as a "little grey-haired old lady on a rotary phone" to more than 100 employees across its offices in Sudbury, North Bay, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie.

This expertise attracted the attention of Sprint, now Rogers, that was looking to offer voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP phones to the market. The problem, they said, was no 911 call routing was available through VoIP services, unlike traditional landlines, VoIP phones could be used practically anywhere.

In conjunction with Sprint's team, Northern Communications created a technological solution that made this 911 routing possible for VoIP subscribers. This allowed Shantz to assist Canadian regulators develop rules which, in 2005, mandated all VoIP service providers supply 911 services to their clients.

The company is now the largest 911 call-routing service in Canada, and the second-largest in North America. That recognition has earned them a significant portion of the United States market fielding hundreds of 911 calls every day from Los Angeles to Estaire, through their Northern911 division.

To better serve clients of a separate division, Care Link Medical Response, another innovation service was created to provide emergency helpers with quick medical information.

Known as the Care Link Medical Information File, the pouch is roughly the size of a large envelope and features a magnetic strip that allows it to be attached to the fridge. Inside is a simple card detailing various checklists one can fill in to outline medical conditions and ongoing medications.

An accompanying sticker can be placed on one's front door, so that paramedics know to check the fridge when they arrive, rather than struggle to speak to people who are either too excited or incapacitated to communicate their medical information.

Developed with the input of emergency room physicians and paramedics, the product has been distributed entirely for free to residents of the four Northern cities where the company operates.

While it may seem an overly simple item, vice-president and general manager John Whitehead says it's the simple things that make the difference. Indeed, he quotes an employee who says we all too often look for high-tech solutions to simple problems.

"That always stuck with me, and that's partly what played into this," says Whitehead. "It's a simple solution for a simple problem, and it's one that has the potential to save lives."

Interest in the item has exploded, with more than 37,000 of the pouches having been distributed since their introduction last year, and even more on the way. Calls from interested parties have reached as far away as Alaska.

However, as the item is not a money-maker, manufacturing and distribution has chewed through the company's charitable budget.

"We'd love to give one to everybody out there, but we can't, so people are now sharing in the cost, though it's always free to the end user."

This same philosophy of implementing existing developments into a single design has also allowed Northern Communications to create other innovations for its Care Link division. By linking home security wireless monitoring technologies such as cameras and motion sensors to the home care service, the company can now keep much closer tabs on the safety of its clients.

This includes being provided with notifications should an elderly client open a certain door at an unexpectedly late hour, or being able to access a live camera feed on your BlackBerry or PC to see if there is cause for concern. Statistical information can even be compiled as to how often the fridge is opened so caregivers can monitor eating habits.