According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), about 240 million 9-1-1 calls are made in the United States each year. Solacom Technologies, of Gatineau, Quebec, builds the critical communications systems that help answer those calls, as well as for security and other mission-critical applications. But Pierre Plangger, Solacom CEO, says answering today’s 9-1-1 calls is a lot more complex than it used to be.
“Not long ago, emergency calls were made almost exclusively on landlines, so it was easy to identify the caller’s location,” says Plangger. “Now a large percentage of emergency calls, around 70 per cent in some communities, originate from a cell phone, and there are also more calls from computer IP addresses as well as 9-1-1 text messages.”
As a result, U.S. communities are calling for increased standards for 9-1-1 call-taking technology, including the ability to draw from landline, mobile, IP, and other databases.
In addition to locating calls, systems must be able to prioritize multiple calls received at once. “With a traffic accident, for example, you may have ten different people calling 9-1-1,” says Plangger. “The way our system presents these calls on a map helps the employee to deduce whether the calls are coming from the same incident and ensure calls for other emergencies are given their due priority.”
Partnerships answer the call
Solacom’s 9-1-1 call-taking systems are answering that call. The technology provides “next generation” 9-1-1 requirements, including consolidating virtual public safety answering points (PSAPs), virtual call taking locations, and other advanced 9-1-1 features.
“Exporting was Solacom’s strategy was from the get-go,” says Plangger. “We export to different countries, but ninety per cent of our business is to the U.S.”
Solacom’s first sales came at the request of a U.S. business partner who had been selling another 9-1-1 system that had stopped production. “We eventually developed other partnerships, and we now have about 230 installations in the U.S., including some state-wide deployments.” The company also has U.S.-based operations in Chicago, and provides after-sales service and support.
There are a few important lessons to be learned when selling to the U.S., Plangger advises. “Americans can have protectionist policies, so we try to look as American as possible. This is why we chose a partnership strategy, as we knew it would be more successful than if we tried to market directly to decision-makers.”
Especially valuable are the relationships local partners bring to the table. “They know the police, the sheriff, the mayor, the councillors, and who’s managing the communications centre. And their knowledge also helps us to tailor the product to the community’s specific needs.”
Partners can also provide an understanding of regional differences. “The U.S. is a big mosaic of markets and not everyone operates the same way,” says Plangger. “So your partner in Texas can give you information about how to succeed in that specific market, while your partner in Georgia will help you strategize your key selling points there.”
Finding the right partners
Early on, one of Solacom’s biggest challenges was finding the right partners. “Starting out, you need to establish credibility. Partners are running a business too, and they need to know you can make a profit for them. At the same time, you need to know they can sell your product. Both parties need to build trust.”
Trade missions and shows helped Solacom find some partners in their early days. “Trade missions can allow you to test your distribution strategy and meet some of your end-users. But be proactive. Can you contribute to identifying potential partners? Can you set up other meetings?”
Having adequate financing was also essential for proving credibility, and Solacom found accounts receivable insurance (ARI) from Export Development Canada (EDC) was helpful. “Because our receivables were insured for payment, our bank was comfortable providing more credit and financing,” says Plangger. “This ensured we could take on new contracts and continue to grow.”