Geek Speak: Christine Sommers, CEO of ePACT Network

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With both natural and human-caused disasters seemingly on the rise, many people are changing their attitudes about emergency preparedness, according to Christine Sommers.

Sommers is the cofounder and CEO of ePACT Network, a North Vancouver-based company incorporated in 2012. What ePACT offers is an “online emergency system” that takes emergency contact forms off paper and into the Digital Age.

Launched in October 2013, ePACT now claims 23,000 family users. It also has 20 organizational clients, with another 10 in the process of signing on.

The Georgia Straight reached Sommers by phone at ePACT’s office.

Where did the idea for ePACT come from?

We have a friend in Japan who survived the earthquake/tsunami of 2011. She is a single mom of two young daughters and ended up coming to Canada that summer. She’s also in Fukushima, which is where the nuclear reactor meltdown happened. So, she came to Canada to escape the radiation and told us about what she went through. That made us look at what we are doing in North America, and the prevalent process at organizations we rely on today is paper emergency forms. They collect your medical details, your contact details, and emergency contacts they can reach out to for support.

When we looked into it, I thought it was pretty crazy that we were using paper forms for something that’s so important. We looked at—could we do a Facebook app or could we leverage existing networks? And it was clear that a separate, distinct emergency network was required. That’s why we built it.

Let’s say the big earthquake hits Vancouver. How would a family use ePACT?

The value of our system comes today from the fact that organizations that you would probably be at in the event of a crisis—like your kids’ school or your employer, your parents’ care home—today they are using these paper emergency forms. If a large-scale earthquake were to hit, they can actually use our system to bring up information like medical details—if someone has allergies or is on specific medication—so that they can provide better care if they’re injured.

But more so there’s also the connectivity and communication. They can send out a blast to parents and let them know that the kids have been evacuated to a field. Or, employers can send out a blast to have their staff check in and say, “Are you okay?” Because often they’ll be on the road or people are in one building, and maybe that building has been impacted.

So, it’s really about the connections, the information-sharing, and communication. Our system has been built to address a large-scale disaster like an earthquake. We have redundant servers east and west in Canada. But it’s also the small emergencies. Anything from somebody having an allergic reaction to peanuts, or we’ve had an employer who adopted it because they had a staff member who went into a diabetic coma and they didn’t know they had diabetes. So, it’s really helping communities better prepare and respond to emergencies—large or small.

Are there corporate uses for the system?

We have a lot of employers who are adopting now, because they’re finding that from a business continuity perspective—making sure that if something happens they can communicate and connect with their staff. But also from an emergency response [perspective], we’ve really found that, in a corporate world, you join a company and often they’ll ask you for maybe one emergency contact and if you have any urgent medical issues. That’s done when you start your job, and there are a lot of people who stay, you know, 10-20 years with their company and they never update it.

So, we have a lot of stories of groups that have come to us because they’ve said, “We had a fellow who had a heart attack on the job, and we went to his file and it listed his mom, because he joined us when he was 20 and now he’s 50.” It’s really helping them better manage and support their employees. Then, in the case of something like the floods that happened in Calgary, there were a lot of very clear gaps in business continuity and being able to tell where people were and communicate with them to say, “These are the evacuation routes,” or, “These are the areas where you can go for support.” We help with all of that.

How much does it cost to use it?

For families, it’s free. For organizations, it’s a small per-member fee per year, and it’s an annual licence. So, for not-for-profits, it’s $1 per member per year. For a private organization, it’s upwards of $12 per member per year.

What’s next for ePACT?

We’re spreading rapidly. We’re already in 54 different countries, because our system actually asks families to create support networks. That often includes somebody out of your direct area. So, if there was an earthquake, you could reach out via email or long-distance phone calls to somebody outside of the area for news updates or support. Because of that, our users have already spread us internationally. But, for us, our focus is really to spread across Canada and the U.S. as quickly as possible.

This year, we’re moving quite aggressively into the U.S. We are already serving organizational clients in B.C., Ontario, and Alberta, but we’re going to press to be across Canada as quickly as possible. It’s an interesting business to be in when you see things like the ice storm and the flooding and train derailments, and you know you could make a difference to communities. So, it’s a good motivator for us to move as quickly as we can.

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