By Kathleen Sibley
It’s been more than 30 years since the communities along the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario have experienced a major flood. In 1974, the streets of Waterloo, which is located on a floodplain, were filled with about four feet of water, severely damaging hundreds of homes and businesses.
But if that happens again, the regional government is much better equipped today to warn residents than they were then thanks to a system developed by Markham, Ont.-based VoiceGate Corp.
Marg Verbeek, manager of emergency measures at the region, explains the Regional Municipality of Waterloo recently put to rest the 386-based software it had been using for years. That software had done its job admirably, she says, eliminating the need for the police to go door- to-door collecting phone numbers manually, but it was time for an update.
“Most people would never hang onto technology as long as we did, but we did because it worked; it had served us very well,” she says.
Bryan Minnes, project manager at VoiceGate, says the automatic dialing technology enables emergency response and business continuity officials to communicate quickly and accurately with response teams. It can send messages to any device capable of receiving a message — landline phones, cellphones, fax machines, e-mail, pagers, PDAs or SMS messaging devices — in either voice or text, in French or English, to up to 99 pre-identified groups or subgroups. Messages can be changed by typing them into the system. As well, the system can respond appropriately depending on the response.
“It can ask a question and based on the answer, it can ask a follow-up question,” he says.
As well, VoiceGate is working with ESRI, the company that markets and supports ArcView, a geo-spatial mapping system, to design and build a "bridge" or a "connector," which enables an ArcView user and a VoiceGate client to define a specific geographic area from the ArcView map, and for ArcView to communicate with the VoiceGate Automated Communication System database. The VoiceGate system will then send the messages to all the available contact information, as defined by the ArcView map.
For example, if there were a plane crash, the software could do geospatial mapping of the area and define areas of risk and issue evacuation messages or information about shelter availability.
“So say you have a subdivision of 200 houses on an evacuation alert, you could use your geospatial map to draw or define a plume around that subdivision, capture contact information from the mapping database and send it across a bridge or connector we have developed,” Minnes says. “As it’s dialing, it’s developing a real-time report, and some time near completion of dialing the calls, that report is sent back across the bridge to the map, which can be programmed to code the map in such a way that the houses successfully reached are indicated on the map. So first responders can look at the street and instead of going to every door, they can just go to the ones they need to go to.”
The software, he says, was designed to police and military specifications for redundancy and privacy to send out messages quickly and accurately.
One of the most important features for users such as municipal or regional governments is that it can be locked down to prevent being hacked into — a scenario that poses the potential for chaos.
“That is extremely important for police forces,” says Minnes. “I was skeptical (of the need to be hacker-proof), but I was at a major police force office where we were doing some technical development work on an install. We plugged it into the Internet so our technology staff in Toronto could get into the system and we took everybody out for lunch. When we came back, hackers destroyed the system. I learned my lesson then.”
Verbeek says the system will be used not just for automatic notification in the event of flooding, but by the local neighbourhood watch program as well.
“We have 3,000 staff and 120 business units and we may have some special needs,” says Verbeek. “Let’s say (the police) get a special type of call — maybe they’ve got an incident and we need people who speak Punjabi ”“ that might be a very fast mechanism to call out that group. Or say we need to call in special workers such as hostage negotiators. Our No. 1 priority was to get it up and rolling on the flood plain side, but we recognized it’s got so many applicable uses internally within our corporate structures and externally.”
Although the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, with 507,000 residents, is much smaller than the City of Ottawa, which has a population of about 877,000, the region is much further along in its adoption of communications technology for emergency response than Ottawa.
Greg Dack, corporate security analyst, says Ottawa has an EDX radio system for police and other first responders. But the city is relying on the media to notify the public.
“We have done a preliminary look at how we might communicate with the public but that’s still in the investigation stage,” he says. “How that is going to be done I’m not exactly sure.”
Ottawa, which is as vulnerable to natural disasters as any other municipality, also has a higher risk of suffering a terrorist attack, he says.
It’s one thing to have a system that automatically dials residents, but getting the phone numbers and contact information into the database still requires residents to volunteer — and keep up-to-date — that information. An easier approach would be for municipalities to have access to that information through telcos. That is the thrust of an application made to the CRTC in June 2004 by Strathcona County on behalf of itself, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the City of Fort Saskatchewan, the City of Brandon, the New Brunswick Department of Safety, Emergency Management Alberta, Emergency Management Ontario, the County of Essex and the City of Niagara Falls asking that government authorities responsible for providing emergency services be granted access to enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) database information with the purpose of providing telephone-based emergency alerts. That information would allow local authorities to implement Community Notification Services to notify citizens of imminent threats to public safety.
The CRTC has approved the application, says Pat Vanini, AMO executive director, but it will probably take another year to implement.
“It took a while to convince the CRTC that municipal governments are also required to deal with their own privacy legislation,” she says.
The decision would have come in handy to deal with a water contamination event in Stratford, Ont. in 2005. The city had an emergency measurement plan in place, but officials ended up having to deploy personnel to knock on doors to make sure people understood they shouldn’t be using their water system for human consumption for a period.
Vanini says the application indicates municipalities’ willingness to co-operate and plan for future disasters. But, notes Minnes, although Ontario passed legislation in 2004 requiring all municipalities to have an emergency response plan in place by the end of 2006, many regions and municipalities are still scrambling.
“They’re all working at it,” he says. But, he adds, “It’s the kind of thing the regional and municipal governments will keep putting on the back burner. They don’t need it until something happens.”
One community Minnes had been talking to for three years experienced in one day a major power failure in a hospital, a major blizzard and a violent bank robbery. “They had to evacuate the hospital because of the power failure. The backup systems weren’t working and they had a great deal of difficulty because the city was immobilized because of the blizzard.” They called the police to help them, but the police were busy with the robbery.
“That happened six months ago and they’re still figuring it out,” he says.
Part of the challenge, according to a 2006 report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ National Security Group titled Emergency: Municipalities missing from disaster planning, is financial. There is an increased risk of climate-related disasters, the study says, and municipalities are the ones tasked with dealing with them for the most part.
“Although the federal government has committed more than $9.5 billion to security since 2001, this study confirms the perception that not enough of this funding has gone to municipalities, where it can do the most good. The funding that municipalities have received, such as what they receive through the Joint Emergency Planning Program (JEPP), Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) or other programs, is limited and highly bureaucratized,” the study says.
FCM president Gord Steeves, who is also a City of Winnipeg councillor, suggests the best way to deal with limited funding for emergency response is by developing training solutions that can be shared among municipalities, rather than each reinventing the wheel, so to speak, and by training specific groups of existing staff.
“For example, if you need special police response units or terrorist type response units, you need groups of individuals to respond in sufficient numbers,” he says. “Obviously a city like Winnipeg can’t hire a group of antiterrorist operatives to be available at the snap of my fingers, so what you have to do is take existing people and train them so that if they’re ever called out they know how to backfill. Providing the necessary qualified groups as specialized one-offs is probably not an option.”
Kathleen Sibley is a Toronto-based freelance writer.