Dec 15, 2011

Because the snow prevented first responders from reaching their Emergency Operations Centres, they quickly established virtual operations, triggering ground and air ­rescue missions using their laptops and telephones. In the absence of situational awareness tools (SA), critical information was relayed between police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS) using telephone and email across several jurisdictions (Lambton County, Middlesex, Sarnia, St. Clair Township/County, Michigan) and between the Ontario Provincial Police, Canadian Forces and the utility companies. This created significant communication challenges, and responders soon realized that without real-time information updates (such as the locations of power outages, stranded motorists, rescue teams, or passable roads), and without up-to-the-minute snow clearance status to guide operations, they could (and did) have as many as four different response units checking on the same vehicles.

“Situational awareness is about knowing what is happening around you so you can make decisions and influence events,” says Ernie MacGillivray, Director of Emergency Services at the New Brunswick Department of Public Safety. “Shared situational awareness ensures that all intervening organizations have the same understanding, which contributes to a more coherent and cohesive response.”

Several different proprietary incident management tools are in use across Canada, and the inability to connect them – to share a common awareness picture – has been identified as a critical capability gap that greatly hinders interoperable ­efficiency.

The Government of Canada is demonstrating progress with one solution that will facilitate interoperable communications among all of these situation awareness tools while providing an interface for agencies without such tools. The capability of field units and agencies to talk and share data in near real-time will be enhanced, thereby improving Situational Awareness for the entire emergency management community.

The initiative is led by the Defence R&D Canada – Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), with a National Implementation Team comprised of partners from Public Safety Canada, Natural Resources Canada’s Mapping Information Branch (MIB), and industry professionals.

The solution, known as the Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS), is an interconnected system to exchange real-time, location-based emergency information using common technologies that are based on national geospatial standards.

The National Implementation Team’s objective is to build an enduring capability that is aligned with Public Safety Canada’s Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada and Action Plan. They have identified MASAS as a common national architecture for public safety situational awareness information exchange across Canada.

One objective of the action plan, entitled United States–Canada Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness (released in December 2011), calls for the harmonization of MASAS with the U.S. Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to improve the coordination of response efforts during disasters affecting both sides of the border.

As part of this initiative, a pilot project entitled the MASAS Information eXchange (MASAS-X) was launched on 1 November 2011. It supports training and exercise scenarios as well as real operations. MASAS-X is now available, by request, to federal, provincial and territorial emergency management agencies. This system is expected to achieve final operating capability in late 2012, when the systems are migrated into a new high resilience environment that will ensure the highest possible level of system availability, even if a large scale disaster wipes  out network communications.

One advantage of MASAS is that agencies don’t need to purchase new tools since it provides the ability to connect varied existing systems through open geospatial standards, alerting and messaging protocols, as well as operational policies. This means that responder organizations can continue using their own system to post and consume SA information with their partners, without fee, using their organization’s existing infrastructure and tools.

During the pilot phase, MASAS has been configured to add information – such as severe weather, earthquakes and road closures – from many government sources. It can be used by responders to indicate the location of incidents involving ­hazardous materials or chemical, biological, radiological-nuclear or explosives agents. MASAS-X also allows users to share documents, pictures, audio files and other geospatially-referenced information such as situation reports pertaining to an incident or alert message (video attachments are also coming soon). This information can be sorted by the level of urgency and severity, and the data appears as annotated points on a map of affected regions.

Because access to MASAS is controlled and limited to the public safety and security community, the users of MASAS can ensure that data integrity is preserved, and that privacy and security are addressed.

In the near future, the emergency management community may be able to use the system to track health alerts, pandemic zone demarcation and search and rescue activities. In fact, the National Search and Rescue Secretariat is in the process of implementing a system that will leverage MASAS concepts, components and models.

For emergency management agencies that do not currently have an SA system, MASAS can provide free, basic web hosted tools for posting and sharing information and alerts, and for viewing information posted from other sources. “Our goal is to leave no one from the emergency community behind,” says Jack Pagotto, Head of ESEC S&T [Emergency Management Systems & Interoperability, Surveillance/ Intel, E-security and Critical Infrastructure Protection] at DRDC CSS. “This capability needs to be available to all emergency managers and public safety officials. You can think of MASAS as providing the easily accessible bucket where the emergency management com­munity can put in their incident-relevant information, in a form that can be easily filtered and extracted, to provide the situational awareness any stakeholder needs for their particular mandate.”

For more information or to request access to MASAS, please visit:, or e-mail
© FrontLine Security 2011