Spring/Summer 2014

Field Testing Deployable Public Safety Broadband Networks

By Peter Anderson and Dr. Stephen Braham

Responding to major emergencies and disasters in Canada’s complex terrain is hard work: it requires sophisticated operations and technology to bring together responders who are at the incident site, as well as those who are providing off-site support, to address a number of life-safety, critical infrastructure protection, and other mission-critical challenges. Responders require immediate access to robust, efficient, and rapidly deployable communication systems to support both on-the-ground tactical operations, as well as complex and information-intensive strategic support-to-site operations (both at incident sites and out-of-area). An advanced field technology project funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) investigates how emerging next-generation mobile communications tools and infrastructure can support these needs.

While many responders have experience using information and communication technologies (ICT) in an office environment, extending this to field-level operations can be a new experience-- it is often limited to the use of available commercial mobile communication services that have not been designed or scaled for emergency use. Major on-demand critical operations require special in-field interoperability solutions that often differ from day-to-day urban solutions. Broadband spectrum was recently set aside for public safety use, which offer such solutions. The idea is to use this spectrum to create a future interoperable Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN). However, Canada has complex terrains and many areas of low population density for which extension of possible future fixed PSBN systems would be impractical. In these areas, PSBN systems would likely need to be deployed on an as-needed tactical basis. Deployable systems will also be needed in rural and urban areas that do not have enough PSBN capacity or when major emergencies overwhelm existing capacity.

Present test beds in development for PSBN and other mission critical networks for federal, provincial, local, and cross-border agencies do not include a detailed in-field testing capability to validate the systems required to meet the operational requirements of deployable systems, especially in rural and remote regions.

The Field Operational Test Facility for Next-Generation Interoperable Mission-Critical Communications Project addresses this need. The project will establish Canada’s first national in-field PSBN wireless testing and validation capability, specifically focusing on deployable systems to support disaster response situations where conventional communication infrastructure is damaged or non-existent. The field-based PSBN facility will test different techniques related to emerging broadband systems and contribute to the development of new protocols and strategies to overcome connectivity and interoperability problems.

The 18-month CSSP-funded research project is being undertaken by the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Telematics Research Lab and is championed by the Communications Research Centre. Project partners include authorities with mission-critical communication requirements: Emergency Management British Columbia, Yukon Territory Emergency Measures Organization, Thompson Nicola Regional District Emergency Management Program, First Nations Emergency Services Society of British Columbia, Northern Health Authority, and the advanced rural network support facilities of Thomson Rivers University.

Two core field tests/demonstrations are planned, with initial sites located in the rugged interior of British Columbia and in the sub-Arctic and mountainous Yukon. SFU’s Advanced Mobile Emergency Communications facility will directly support all initial system tests and development, as well as in-field testing and demonstrations in British Columbia. The Yukon test is currently planned to take place in a more remote environment and will use a highly portable field system.

Peter Anderson is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Director of the Telematics Research Lab at Simon Fraser University (anderson@sfu.ca).

Dr. Stephen Braham is an Adjunct Professor and the Director of the PolyLAB for Advanced Collaborative Networking at Simon Fraser University (sbraham@sfu.ca).

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#SMEM: Using Social Media in Emergency Management

by Kate Kaminska and Bjorn Rutten

Emergency management and first responder organizations around the world are exploiting the use of social technologies to prepare for, respond to, and recover from crises. For example, the use of social media offers the opportunity to connect with the networked public, improve situational awareness, and reach people quickly with alerts, warnings, and preparedness messages.  Social media tools have also enabled citizens to exert significant influence in areas of society, such as public safety and security, which were previously viewed as the exclusive domain of large institutions, industry, and government.

Virtual volunteer organizations, in particular the members of the Digital Humanitarian Network,  are making significant contributions to international disaster relief efforts. These organizations lead the way in volunteer-driven crisis-mapping and crowd-sourcing of crisis information. Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, their involvement has become an integral part of the international community’s response to major disasters. Several countries have seen the formation of Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs) that local emergency management organizations can engage to perform a variety of digital support services, such as monitoring, filtering, and mapping of relevant information.

However, Canada’s emergency management community has not yet fully embraced social media and the potential for collaboration with virtual volunteers remains unfulfilled. A targeted investment project funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) entitled Social Media in Emergency Management (SMEM) was initiated in the spring of 2013 to address this gap. One of the project’s primary goals is to identify opportunities and conditions for cooperation between the official responders, the virtual volunteers and the public at large to enable improved situational awareness and build resilience, at both community and national levels.

As part of the project, Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) partnered with the City of Calgary and the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) in October 2013 to hold Canada’s first Expert Roundtable on Social Media for Emergency Management.  Several virtual volunteer groups--Standby Taskforce (SBTF), Crisis Commons, and CanVOST--worked with the Canadian Red Cross and representatives of CEMA, the City of Calgary, and Toronto Police Services to develop a maturity model for social technology-aided cooperation and exchanged views on the way forward for SMEM in Canada. Jason Cameron, CEMA’s Manager of Business Continuity & Recovery Planning, said: It was an amazing opportunity for CEMA and the City to participate amongst national leaders in disaster innovation.

The next milestone of this two-year project will be the Digital Volunteer-Supported Disaster Recovery Experiment scheduled to take place in Halifax in November 2014. This virtual cooperation experiment will be part of the Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Forum and will test a concept of cooperation between emergency management officials, the Canadian Red Cross, and virtual volunteers during the recovery phase of a major disaster. The experiment has a cross-border component through the planned activation of the Digital Operations Centre (DigiDOC) of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., and the use of surge capacity virtual volunteers from the United States.  It is currently being implemented as a part of the third Canada–US Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE), which is a series of exercises that focus on enhancing resilience in emergency and crisis management through situational awareness interoperability by successfully integrating and harmonizing Canada-US situational awareness systems.

#SMEM in Canada: Facts and Figures

Figure 1: #SMEM in Canada: Facts and Figures

Public Expectations

  • 63% say emergency responders should be prepared to respond to calls for help posted on social media
  • 1 in 3 think emergency responders will respond to a request for help posted on social media
  • About half would sign up for emergency alerts via email, text message or smartphone app

Popularity of Social Networking

  • Facebook - 19 million users across Canada, 14 million login everyday, 10 million access on mobile devices, usage higher than global or US averages
  • Twitter - 5th highest usage worldwide, 1 in 5 internet users use Twitter
  • YouTube - 71% of internet users use YouTube

Case Study - 2013 Calgary Floods

  • 15,000 volunteers mobilized through "YYC Helps" Facebook and Twitter
  • #YYCflood mentioned 32 times a minute over 10 days
  • City's Twitter account doubled: 84,000 followers
  • Mayor's Twitter account gained 28,000 followers


Kate Kaminska, Ph.D., is an Operational Research Analyst with Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS). kate.kaminska@drdc-rddc.gc.ca. Twitter: @katekaminska1

Bjorn Rutten is an Associate with Social Catalyst Inc. bjorn@socialcatalyst.ca. Twitter: @BjornRutten

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