The Struggle to Unify Canada’s Emergency Alert Systems

A new wireless communication policy could finally bring together a patchwork of systems to keep peope safe

November 07, 2016

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Brenda Gheran, executive director of northeast region community awareness emergency response
Photo by Paul Swanson

Any time an emergency happens in Alberta—be it a wildfire threatening an entire city, or an operational hazard at an oil sands facility—a flurry of digital and cellular alerts go out to medical responders, industrial operators and residents in the area. But the audiences for those warnings are often scattered across a vast region, and the organizations that broadcast them can differ as much as the methods they use to communicate.

“Now that we have the benefit of all of this technology, there is an opportunity for a solid national public alerting strategy. With that, everybody would know what they are doing. Emergency responders wouldn’t have to do 15 different things to notify the public—they would have to do one really smart thing.”
– Brenda Gheran, executive director of Northeast Region Community Awareness Emergency Response (NRCAER)

One new technology that could prove revolutionary is the Wireless Public Alerting System (WPAS), which allows emergency response organizations to send out messages to wireless devices such as cellphones within a certain geographical area. The system, which would rely on Canadian telecommunications providers, would be able to send messages to all cellphones in a certain area, no matter what province or region the phone is registered in, and without the phone’s owner having to pre-register for the service. The system would work for any type of emergency that the public needs to be notified about and would be implemented across the country. In Alberta, it could be particularly helpful to notify oil and gas workers who are often working far away from home.

The same technology has already been implemented in both the U.S. and Australia. In the U.S., the system is used to send emergency alerts to all mobile devices within the cellular tower coverage area that is affected by an incident. These alerts use vibration and a unique sound, accompanied by text telling the user what the incident is and what actions should be taken.

Earlier this year, the Canadian radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) put out a call for comments on the implementation of the WPAS system. It asked if Canadian wireless service providers should have to carry emergency alerts, just as radio and television broadcasters have to carry emergency alerts as a condition of their license. The CRTC is still studying the submissions, but many emergency response groups have expressed support for implementation of such a system.

Currently, emergency situations prompt what one emergency response planner refers to as a “system of systems.” While this piecemeal approach has mostly worked in the past, it falls short of what Brenda Gheran sees as the ideal system—simple, unified and direct. Gheran is the executive director of Northeast Region Community Awareness Emergency Response (NRCAER), a mutual aid organization that plans emergency response for a 700-square kilometer area northeast of Edmonton.

Gheran says there has to be a more efficient way. “Emergency notification systems are evolving all the time with the advancement of technology and lessons learned from previous emergencies,” says Gheran, whose area of oversight includes industrial energy regions like Fort Saskatchewan and Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. “But right now, because there’s no silver bullet, there is no single way to get all of the information to all of the people all of the time.”

Residents in NRCAER’s jurisdiction have several different ways they can get access to alerts, but they all require self-registration. Therefore, the system can’t reach residents, visitors or workers in the region who haven’t registered. In a bustling area like the Industrial Heartland, where temporary contract work is routine, that’s a big problem. NRCAER runs a 24-hour hotline that gives callers information about odors, prolonged flaring, fires and other incidents. But again, residents have to call in to check on their danger status, and that’s grossly inefficient.

Gheran supports a national strategy for a streamlined emergency alert system. “Now that we have the benefit of all of this technology, there is an opportunity for a solid national public alerting strategy,” she says. “With that, everybody would know what they are doing. Emergency responders wouldn’t have to do 15 different things to notify the public—they would have to do one really smart thing.”

Canada’s three major wireless service providers—Rogers, Bell and Telus—have all expressed support for wireless public alerting to the CRTC. “We agree that wireless public alerting will be a significant benefit to Canadians and should be mandatory for all wireless service providers, including primary brands, extension brands, and resellers,” said Bell Canada in its submission. The big telecoms also expressed concern about using the existing infrastructure to send alerts by text message, which could potentially overload the network. The three companies all said the system should use Cell Broadcast messaging, a technology that’s being developed to handle mass messaging. But Cell Broadcast is still years away in Canada, and many existing phones don’t support the technology. The telecom companies also argued that cellphone users should be able to opt out of the system, or at least be able to determine what type of notifications they receive.

“Wireless public alerting offers the opportunity to both increase the impact of emergency alerts by reaching people on their favourite communication device plus better targeting alert messages using smartphone technology,” says Tim Seefeldt, communications director of Alberta Municipal Affairs, the ministry that oversees the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. “In this respect, wireless public alerting represents a significant improvement in technology. The core message however, the alert itself, must still be well presented by clearly identifying the immediate threat, with concise instructions and the public must trust that the alert is accurate and important to them.”

Gheran says that back in the mid-1990s, emergency response planners imagined an age when they could simply implant a microchip in people, so they could receive alerts if they were in a geographic area. Now, with most Canadians carrying a cellphone, they don’t need to do that. They just need the CRTC to say that wireless service providers have to get on board, she says.

Tracey McCrimmon, director of the Sundre Petroleum Operators Group, which helps co-ordinate mutual aid in the southwestern Alberta region, says that as good as a single cellular alert system sounds, it’s still no panacea for the emergency notification problem. “The problem is, if you do it wirelessly, we still have significant spaces in our area that have very poor cell service, if any cell service at all,” says McCrimmon. “So wireless can be one of the tools, but it certainly can’t be the only tool that is utilized because they would be missing the mark with a pretty significant number of areas without cell service.”

Like NRCAER, the Sundre operators group also runs a 24-hour emergency hotline that residents can call if they see, hear or smell a potential danger. The organization also has a database of landowners who it can contact through a partner company if there is an emergency or natural disaster. But again, all that information has been collected on an opt-in basis and is incomplete.

For Alberta, the province’s most powerful tool is the Alberta Emergency Alert, a system that accesses many channels such as radio, television, social media, road signs and digital billboards. It also has a website, mobile app and RSS feed that can be accessed for up-to-the-minute information. “The current system works to make sure that emergency alerts are available through whichever method that the public chooses to get its information,” says Seefeldt, adding that Alberta has been a world leader in public alerting since the 1987 tornado that struck east of Edmonton. The province is continuing to look at new technology and methodology, including rapidly evolving smartphone technology and supporting a national strategy, Seefeldt says.

The Alberta Emergency Alert system’s major test came in May when the Fort McMurray wildfire raged. On day one its website recorded 11 million hits—rising to 68 million in the following six weeks, while 37,300 people downloaded the system’s mobile app. That’s a considerable success in emergency response terms, but just how many of those alert subscribers have since opted out again, is anyone’s guess.

More posts by Dave S. Clark

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