There are no air raid sirens in 2005.
While we're all on the topic of tsunami early warning systems in the Indian Ocean, we need more discussion about Canada's own emergency response system.
What will happen in our own community if we receive a dire warning?
If something catastrophic were imminent in Canada, news of it would need to quickly move to the top of the information chain. Once the appropriate government department was informed, they would use EAS, the Emergency Alert System (formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System and before that as CONELRAD, the atomic bomb-era System for the Control of Electronic Radiation) to transmit messages to radio and television stations. Only people tuned in to stations that broadcast the message - note that it is not mandatory for media outlets to broadcast all messages - would learn of the emergency. The rest of us would need to hope that distributed word-of-mouth through analogue and digital friend-and-associate networks would take care of disseminating the information to our own attention.
If EAS were triggered at 5 am while most of Canada was 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 of Canada Weatheradio network - would learn about it. Everyone else would sleep through only God knows what.
"It's up to the EMO (Emergency Management Office) of the individual province or municipality to inform the public," says Simone MacAndrew, of the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (http://www.ocipep.gc.ca). "On a federal level we do a lot of coordination between provinces, but we don't have operations personnel on staff."
"In any emergency, the municipality in which the emergency occurs is the centre of first response," says Bruce O'Neill, speaking for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (Ontario's EMO) (http://www.mpss.jus.gov.on.ca).
"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 in which case Dr. (James) Young (commissioner of Emergency Management for Ontario) would likely take an important role right off the top and take over the coordination."
"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 said that EAS has "fallen into disarray and needs major reform." They are planning to rebuild it, modernizing the way it manages broadcasts. They want to not only have a signal that automatically turns on TVs and radios in case of emergencies, but also sends warnings to computers and Blackberries by e-mail, and cell phones by SMS (Short Message Service or text messages).
The FCC initiative was largely spurred on by the devastating failure of EAS in New York 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.
In Ontario today, the closest we get to using (and testing) a version of EAS is when an Amber Alert is issued. The Ontario Provincial Police, the Ontario Association of Broadcasters and the Ministry of Transportation came to terms in a "province-wide liaison" to put in place a system that immediately has information about a confirmed child abduction displayed on electronic highway signs and broadcasts by radio, television and cable TV stations.
Unfortunately, this doesn't touch many people where it matters - their hands and eyes, where they can react appropriately in real-time. The best way to do this today is through SMS and e-mail, where people can be reached at their computers and on the mobile phones that are 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 said they never leave home without it and 37 per cent said they keep it turned on at all times. While the number of people who use SMS in Canada is relatively low, it's growing steadily and an SMS broadcast ought to definitely become an essential component of our EAS system.
Cell phones, unlike landline 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 involve the three national providers (TELUS, Bell & Rogers) opening 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 as they all now have sophisticated SMS broadcast software in place. They just need to coordinate in tandem with an as-yet undefined national emergency communications strategy.
The Wireless Priority Service (WPS) announced by Rogers Wireless and Industry Canada in November bodes well for this possibility. 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 someone up high is thinking intelligently about this technology, and how to use it in an emergency.
A good example of using SMS to quickly propagate emergency information is Arizona State's Amber Alert Web Portal. 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.
Canadian government and industry ought to take a very close look at Arizona's system. It has the potential to save many lives, as speed of communication is critical in states of emergency.
Three quiet hours mercilessly ticked by before the tsunami reached Sri Lanka, and more than ten hours passed before it started killing people on Africa's East coast. If scientists and the media had clearly recognized the impending devastation, they had no plausible course of action other than shrieking in impotent fury. There was no emergency response system in place, and there was no way to properly reach people and inform them of impending danger. Let us not forget this.