Industry Canada calls for disaster alert mechanism

TORONTO – As international disasters increase in frequency – from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 to the arrest of suspected terrorist bombers in Toronto last week – steps should be taken to improve preparedness, response and recovery, according to experts at the 16th World Conference on Disaster Management being held here this week.

The time has come for developed nations to build alerting systems, said Jan Skora, director general of the Radiocommunications and Broadcasting Regulatory Branch of Industry Canada. While there are pockets of alerting capability in Canada, it generally involves knocking on doors and getting the media to spread the word.

“We’re surrounded by technology that allows us to get in touch with one another,” said Skora, including cell phones, handheld PCs and the Internet. But while the technology is available, he added, the filters and enabling agents aren’t there yet.

There’s a lack of data messaging standards that allow for emergency management software tools to share incident-related information, said Chip Hines, program manager of the Disaster Management eGov Initiative with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. While XML standards assist the emergency response community in sharing data securely, he said, messaging standards development and implementation will drive data systems to interoperability.

The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), for example, provides the ability to exchange all-hazard emergency alerts, notifications and public warnings, which can be disseminated simultaneously over myriad warning systems. The EMXS Distribution Element provides a message distribution framework for data sharing, specifying elements such as recipients, geographic area or other codes.

In the U.S., for example, if a train en route to San Diego Naval Station is derailed, tanker car sensors transmit possible damage or chemical leak information to a sensor network, which automatically sends a CAP message to the San Diego Emergency Operations Center.

A CAP message explains where the data is coming from and where the recipient can get further information, said Norm Paulsen, dissemination standards meteorologist with Environment Canada.

All alerting systems, including sirens, telephone, TV, PC and radio, are accommodated. While CAP is agnostic in terms of the underlying transport protocol, there is a need for a made-in-Canada version to take geographic regions into account. “Saskatchewan has lots of rural municipalities, while Alberta has long and narrow counties,” he said. “We have to be able to handle them all.”

Existing delivery systems may have to be tweaked to accept those codes. “CAP has an element called ‘urgency,’” he said. “We have to find a way to get ‘urgency’ into the system.” Basically, organizations would build filters from CAP to their own system, taking into account how each hazard is identified. For example, sensors on the ocean floor sensing a tsunami may not require human intervention to interpret the results, while predicting the path of a tornado might require human intervention.

The Internet is also serving as a medium for public alerts through IPAS (Internet Public Alerting System). “When you talk to folks on the ground, they wonder whether the Internet is reliable enough for public alerts,” said Nabil Sedigh, president of Solana Networks, adding that public perception is a challenge.

IPAS consists of alert servers, public alert client software, a public Web portal to issue alerts and system administrator tools. It has a distributed server architecture and hierarchical public alerting model, so alerts can be targeted by region, priority and type of alert. IPAS receives CANALERT messages in CAP format, and could also use CAP between IPAS servers and client software.

In three rounds of IPAS field trials in various municipalities across the country, Sedigh said the results indicated a strong need for “canned” alert messages and guidelines for alert composition. The strongest traction was with daytime office workers and students, but municipalities wanted to avoid the overhead of subscribing users.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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