The wireless ID badge that also helps keep workers safe.
12 Jan 2014
The lone worker device which helps protect workers safety
Supplying the public sector can be "daunting and complex" for small businesses, according to Craig Swallow, a pioneer in the "lone worker" alarm market.
But despite an era of public cuts, his technology company, Connexion2, now provides protection for NHS and local government staff visiting clients' homes across Britain.
Swallow, the managing director, masterminded Identicom, an alarm disguised as an official identification badge, following an employee safety conference in 2002 hosted by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust - which was founded after the disappearance of the 25-year-old estate agent in the late 1980s.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur and expert in mobile and wireless technology was struck by the experiences of a public sector worker who had been threatened with a knife in a patient's home and was often subjected to verbal abuse.
"She frequently dealt with mental health patients or drug and alcohol abusers, and in hostile instances pulling out a mobile phone [would] only escalate the situation," he said.
A former executive of the mobile computer manufacturer Psion, Swallow spotted a gap in the market. The provision of mobile phones and buddy systems (where employees are paired to share location details) were the only security measures in place for lone governmental workers in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The ID badge alarm first caught the public eye when former health secretary Lord Reid walked out of a hospital holding the device and waved it in front of a group of journalists.
"The timing was very lucky," said Swallow. "The completion of the prototype coincided with a shift change in culture at the NHS. A central body traditionally dedicated to detecting fraud had been tasked with employee safety, and we delivered the device the day before Lord Reid circulated a plan on how to keep NHS staff safe."
That single piece of TV footage was critical in enabling Swallow to secure £500,000 of funding to mass-produce the alarm, pay for engineers to finish hardware design and hire a sales and marketing manager.
But despite such positive signals, the Government entered a period of cost reductions in 2004 and it took six years for the Department of Health to fund the initial roll-out of the device.
"As a small business, dealing with public sector procurement can be daunting and complex," said Swallow.
"The tender process is time-consuming and lengthy, and it's easy to underestimate the amount of effort and time that is absorbed. Clearly, it's important that public-sector organisations achieve best value, but we often find that public sector clients are as critical as we are of the complex structures of OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) and other similar tender frameworks."
Efficiency drives have also led to the development of a rigorous supplier scoring system, he explained. As a direct result of budget squeezes, the percentage of the score that relates to price has tended to rise. According to Swallow, the percentage relating to the effectiveness of the solution has reduced and so, too, has the opportunity to introduce innovation.
"It would be nice to see the Government look at ways of removing some of the bureaucracy of tender processes and returning more 'local power' to public sector clients to make better, considered, buying decisions," he said.
In the fledgling years of the business, smaller public sector bodies made up the bulk of Connexion2's clientele as organisations such as Wandsworth Borough Council equipped their staff with the alarms during an investigation into housing benefit fraud. Other governmental and third-sector buyers included Thames Valley Housing and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.
But the primary alarm function is not the only component of the complex device. On approaching a job, the lone worker can press a button to alert a 24/7 call centre to their location and record a message describing any visible risks, such as an unlit car park or a fierce dog in the front garden.
"These other functions are more proactive than the reactive push of the button to alert the police and record the incident," Swallow said. "The device almost trains the worker to assess risk, as opposed to just walking blind into a situation." This element of the Identicom package also appealed to private sector companies, with their growing sense of risk awareness.
Broadcaster BSkyB has equipped its engineers with Identicom, and Travelodge now gives the device to receptionists manning its hotels late at night.
Swallow, whose company also exports to the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, said: "UK companies have led the way in terms of risk awareness and fear of corporate manslaughter [charges]. "The private sector is very attuned to these risks which you can [trace] back to the BP oil spill - a landmark case that opened businesses' eyes to what risk is and the cost of mismanaging it."
The global financial downturn also turned the business world on to the issue of risk, and as a result Connexion2 has seen revenue growth of 43pc over the past year, up from £3m to the £4.3m recorded for 2013. In fact, an entire consulting industry busily drawing business risk maps has sprung up following the banking crisis. "Chief risk officers are now a must-have on the board," Swallow said. "The consumer squeeze meant retailers and pubs cut back on staff, and extended opening hours over Christmas, leaving lone workers to hold the fort. Equally, the rise of the pawnbrokers is also driving sales," he added.
Connexion2's next venture is a camera alarm device, although this innovation is not without its challenges.
"The use of cameras must be thoroughly considered and legal, much in the same way as CCTV installations are considered decisions. "Using such technology to help workers such as security staff at football matches to try to identify individuals responsible for verbal abuse could be interesting," he said. "So watch this space."
Source: The Sunday Telegraph, 12th Jan 2014.
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