There are no air raid sirens in 2005.
While we're all concerned with tsunami early warning systems in the Indian Ocean, we need more discussion about Canada's own emergency response system.
If something catastrophic were imminent in Canada, here's what would happen:
Once the appropriate government department was informed, it would use EAS, the Emergency Alert System (formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System) to relay messages to radio and television stations. Only people tuned in to stations that broadcast the message (it is not mandatory for media outlets to broadcast all messages) would learn of the emergency. The rest of us would have to hope the information came to our attention through word of mouth or friend-and-associate networks.
What this means is that if the EAS were triggered at 5 am, when most of Canada is sleeping, only survival-minded people with Public Alert Devices tuned to listen for a signal from one of the 180 national transmitters in Environment Canada's Meteorological Service Weatheradio network would learn about it. Everyone else would sleep through God only knows what.
Simone MacAndrew of the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (www.ocipep.gc.ca) says it's up to the EMO (Emergency Management Office) of the individual province or municipality to inform the public.
"On a federal level we do a lot of coordination between provinces, but we don't have operations personnel on staff," she says.
Speaking for Ontario's EMO , part of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (www.mpss.jus.gov.on.ca), Bruce O'Neill adds that in any emergency, the municipality where the emergency occurs is the centre of first response,
"If a plane hit the CN Tower and it were determined to be a terrorist attack, the first level of emergency response would be from the city of Toronto," says O'Neill, "but it would quickly become a provincial situation. During the floods in Peterborough, for example, the EMO coordinated the response from a number of areas, but the response and responsibility belonged to the city."
In a recent interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine, U.S. FCC chairman Michael Powell allowed that the EAS there has "fallen into disarray and needs major reform."
There are plans to rebuild it and modernize the way it manages broadcasts. The intention is to have a signal that will automatically turn on TVs and radios in case of emergencies and also send warnings to computers and Blackberries by e-mail and to cellphones by SMS (Short Message Service or text messages).
The FCC initiative was largely spurred by the devastating failure of the EAS in New York City during 9/11. Not only did city emergency managers fail to issue an alert, but most New York TV stations' antennas were located atop the World Trade Center. Time to rethink and react indeed.
The closest we get today to using (and testing) a version of the EAS in Canada comes when an Amber Alert is issued. A system is now in place to have information about the victim or missing child displayed immediately on electronic highway signs and broadcast by radio and television stations.
Unfortunately, this doesn't put the message where it matters - in people's hands and view, where they can react appropriately and quickly. The best way to do this today is through SMS and e-mail, reaching people at their computers and on the mobile phones semi-permanently attached to their hips.
According to a recent Ericsson Canada survey, 63 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 69 own a mobile phone. Sixty-nine per cent of them say they never leave home without it, and 37 per cent say they keep it turned on at all times. While the number of people using SMS in Canada is relatively low, it's growing steadily, and an SMS broadcast definitely ought to become an essential component of our EAS system.
Unfortunately, cellphones, unlike land line phones, rely on power stations being intact and functional. And while the Internet itself was made to withstand nuclear war, you won't be able to get online from home if Toronto Hydro takes a direct hit or a meltdown in Pickering causes the grid to fail.
"In the event of a nuclear emergency, the EMO in conjunction with the Joint Information Centre and the director of communications for our ministry would be in charge," says O'Neill. "The public would be notified in the affected area through a number of means: public address documents, Canada NewsWire, TV and radio."
All the current planning is for top-down communication through mainstream media. There are no plans in place for bottom-up community-based dissemination of emergency alert information. Doing so would require that the three national providers (Telus, Bell and Rogers) open their networks for messaging from the EMO to some or all their subscribers (depending on the geographic area of the affected population) at marginal internal costs. It's a simple technical matter, since they all have sophisticated SMS broadcast software already in place. They just need to coordinate in tandem with an as yet undefined national emergency communications strategy.
Rogers Wireless's and Industry Canada's announcement of a wireless priority service (WPS) in November is a step in this direction. WPS provides selected wireless telephone users (government-approved "first responders") with top-priority access to the network even if it is heavily congested.
At least this shows that some higher-ups are thinking intelligently about how to use this technology in an emergency.
A good example of using SMS to disseminate emergency information quickly is Arizona's Amber Alert Web portal (www.arizonaamberalert.com). Individuals can register to be notified by cell, pager, Instant Messenger or e-mail when a child goes missing. Part of the state's EAS strategy includes a broadcast across all these channels as well as to large media. Someone ought to take a very close look at this system.
The CBC has a great State of Emergency FAQ on its Web site (http://cbc.ca/news/background/stateofemergency/). Learn more about the EAS at the Environment Canada Web site (www.msc.ec.gc.ca/msb/weatheradio/public_alert_e.cfm).