Canadian cities test online emergency alert system

Canadian cities are considering a Web-based system that will allow local governments to broadcast emergency warnings about natural disasters, disease outbreaks or terrorist attacks straight to users’ desktops.

So far five municipalities, including the Ontario cities of Waterloo, Guelph

and Cornwall, have tested the Internet Public Alerting System (IPAS) developed by Ottawa-based Solana Networks and Sombra Labs. Unlike the emergency broadcast system used by television networks, IPAS users would register for the types of emergency alert notifications that they feel are appropriate to their circumstances. In the event of an emergency alert broadcast, the alert message will pop-up in a window on the subscribed user’s computer. Industry Canada sponsored the development of the system, which is also intended for provincial or federal governments. Solana will demonstrate IPAS at the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto next week.

Geraint Jones, Solana Network’s vice-president of business development, said IPAS could be used to inform PCs users about local emergencies, such as a train derailment or storm warnings, or be used within an organization such as a hospital to update users about epidemics like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that swept through Ontario two years ago. The pop-up window offers a more direct approach than other forms of electronic notification, he said.

“Say you were to do e-mail alerts. Then you’ve got the possibility the alert will get caught in a spam filter, or stopped by the firewalled,” he said. “What we’ve developed is a system that’s secure with an architecture that could scale to millions of users.”

So far three field trials have been conducted, with the most recent one in February. Beta testers outside of Ontario included the City of Brandon, Manitoba, which has also been exploring other emergency alert devices such as a wireless radio-activated alarm system for schools and hospitals. Brian Kayes, the city’s emergency services coordinator, said a survey of its citizens showed that 45 per cent are concerned about a major emergency in Brandon within the next five years, and 90 per cent were in favour of developing more sophisticated alert notifications. 

IPAS, Kayes said, would make a series of beeps when the pop-up window appeared, and subscribers would then acknowledge receipt of the notification.

“It wasn’t extremely intrusive. The thing just didn’t start wailing and screaming away and cause you to jump off your chair,” he said. “It didn’t take over your computer or lock up everything. People said that it worked well for people who were at their PC for most of the day.” 

Minor problems in the trial included an interface for subscribing to alerts that was somewhat confusing, Kayes said, as was the system manual.

“It was less than intuitive if you’re not a computer geek,” he said, adding that the lack of a spell-checker could cause problems from the administration side. “You want to make sure it looks professional, and of course if you’re in a hurry, your typing skills may suffer a little bit.” 

Solana will also be using the World Conference on Disaster Management to showcase a software platform that integrates a network management system with a geographic information system. The product, which was commissioned by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) and co-developed with ESRI Canada, will assess the impact of earthquakes, floods or other natural disasters on IT infrastructure.

“Everybody’s concerned about virus attacks and cyber attacks, but one of the issues that no one’s ever looked at is how secure is our infrastructure to physical threats,” Jones said.

“If you look at the (2003 power outage) in Toronto and how that affected their services, (organizations) have realized maybe they’re not as redundant as they thought.”

Jones said the system performs line of site analysis for wireless network components, networking vulnerability analysis, and forecasting threats to networks. It would also show locations where IT infrastructure would be at the highest risk of failure from severe weather, and simulates the effects of human error or terrorist incidents to networks. Solana hopes that corporations as well as governments will be interested in the idea.

“Certainly in the enterprise the interest will come from the CIO,” he said. “What’s your emergency response if this happens? How’s that going to impact my service? Can we, as a government, do all our day-to-day operations?” 

Solana tested the vulnerability assessment system at Carleton University as well as CANARIE’s network earlier this year.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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