Storm Warning in Effect

Canada has all the elements of a national public alerting system, but many important, time-sensitive public safety messages from government agencies aren’t getting through to the public.

The possibilities for alerting the public are almost endless – and the technology exists to enable them – but there are barriers to progress in this area.

Ideally, responsible public officials should be able to deliver all public safety messages to citizens within seconds – and citizens should be able to receive that information any way they want – via pop-ups on their computer screens; by scrolling lines on their TV screens; calls or text messages on their cell phones; automated calls to their wired telephones; or even by fax.

The middle section of the link between the public safety agencies and the citizens has actually been working, and working well, since the summer of 2010. The National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System (NAADS) is a single hub where authorized public officials can securely place alert information. In turn, NAADS makes that information available by Internet and satellite to ‘last mile distributors’ (LMD), the broadcasters, cable operators, Internet and telephone systems that can complete the delivery of those alerts to Canadians.

Unfortunately, at the input end of NAADS, not enough provinces and territories have authorized their officials to put messages on the system. At the output end, not enough LMD’s have signed up to deliver the messages. The system, and the challenge of making it work, both belong to Pelmorex, the company that runs the Weather Channel and MétéoMédia.

For years, the CRTC was reluctant to be the body that oversees a Canadian alerting service, but no other national agency came forward. Because broadcasting is clearly a key element of a national alerting system, in 2009 the CRTC finally began the process that created NAADS.

 “We at the CRTC felt we had to take the necessary steps to make sure that there is no impediment from the broadcasting system to these messages getting out,” CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein told Frontline Security. “It’s amazing the amount of bureaucratic inertia that exists. People thanked us immensely for actually pushing something forward which actually had been on the planning stage for years but for reasons which nobody could quite articulate, it didn’t move forward.”

As von Finckenstein said, Pelmorex  “...had agreed to develop this national alerting system free of charge as long as we gave them another seven years of mandatory carriage and we said ‘yes, fine, sure, if you are prepared to do it.’” The CRTC gave Pelmorex until the end of 2011 to sign up the provinces, territories and Environment Canada, and instructed the company to do what is necessary to have LMD’s start using the system.

Pelmorex has a powerful incentive to wring more value out of NAADS. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has kept The Weather Channel/ MétéoMédia on ‘basic cable’ or mandatory carriage, which brings in $0.23 a month per subscriber, on condition that NAADS becomes a true, national alerting service. The language of the CRTC decision is clear, stating “any extension of mandatory distribution of Pelmorex’s service must result in a fully functional end-to-end national public alerting system.”

Pelmorex has been working at creating a national alerting service for about two decades, said senior vice-president Paul Temple but, “Sometimes it feels like centuries.” Pelmorex’s ‘primary clients’ are the provincial and territorial Emergency Management Organizations (EMO). An advisory council brings those EMO’s together with representatives from the broadcasting community and the federal government. “And the way we’re set up, we enter into an agreement with each province or territory to provide them access,” Temple said. “There are certain rules that we have to follow and they have to follow and that’s spelled out in a formal agreement. And then it is really up to them how they want the system used. We’ve entered into an agreement with Ontario, so Ontario has complete control over who has access to the system. They can delegate as much or as little authority to any group they want in Ontario.” Most recently, for example, the Ontario Provincial Police have been delegated the authority to issue amber alerts.

There is a national emergency reporting system exclusively for the emergency management community called MASAS, described in detail in the article on page XX. In MASAS, carefully structured data from authorized agencies goes into the system, and it is filtered down to what is relevant to specific locations and distribution channels. The system is easy to use for everyone in the first responder community, and its output can be delivered in different formats and languages.

“Essentially, NAADS is the public alerting implementation of MASAS”, according to emergency communications consultant Doug Allport, who voluntarily leads the efforts of the Canadian Association for Public Alerting and Notification (CAPAN). “Both systems provide the means for an emergency official to post an alert once and have it shared with a broad community of stakeholders.” Whereas the Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS) described on Page __ does that within the emergency management community, “NAADS links public officials with news agencies, broadcasters, telecommunications companies, internet search engine providers and other distributors.”

Allport points out that the structure of an alert message allows it to be converted to television crawlers, text to audio, email and SMS messages, tweets or other formats, in any language. It also supports easy identification of alerts by location and severity, so that only high risk alerts disrupt television programming. This structure is defined by the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a standard message format being adopted around the world.

The U.S. is implementing a CAP-based system that fulfills both NAADS and MASAS roles. When asked why not do the same here in Canada, Allport explains that “we could, but the legal and business issues of NAADS would disrupt the rapid adoption of MASAS. If you take a look at what is shared through MASAS, almost all of the content could be shared with the public – except that the person sharing it often doesn’t have the authority to do so. In fact, in some provincial governments, the Emergency Manager has to have a communications official issue an alert.” In his opinion, “keeping the two separate is to our advantage at this time.”

Public safety ministers in the provinces, territories and federal government have signed off on MASAS as a national priority, under a Communications Interoperability Action Plan for Canada. And while not specifically noted in the Action Plan, NAADS has a governing council that is supported by most of the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management for the provinces, territories and federal government. It certainly appears as though the issues are being addressed by the right stakeholders.

One outstanding issue is liability. It seems that broadcasters and alert distributors are not joining NAADS due to concerns over assuming liability for accidents or injuries that could be associated with false alarms or some other problem with the alerting system.

At Pelmorex, Paul Temple struggles with that legal impasse. “That is one of the big issues I guess. I am not sure how much of an issue it really is. It may be a bit of a phantom.” The formal agreement that Pelmorex signs with each provincial and territorial jurisdiction addresses the liability issue, but that does not bind broadcasters or other LMD’s to actually carry the alerts.

Von Finckenstein believes, this liability argument is “somewhat bogus.” He says the obvious answer is to “get the necessary relief from the people who gave you the ­signal in the first place.” In other words, governments should simply assume the risks of issuing an alert.

Alberta is one province that assumes the legal responsibility for issuing public alerts. After the devastating Edmonton tornado in 1987, the province created an alerting system which can be triggered by a number of authorized agencies, including police and fire department, municipalities and the military. That protects people who put information into that system, but elsewhere broadcasters still have concerns.

As Doug Allport said, “Right now they have no legal protection whatsoever. It is not that we think they will ever lose a suit. It is that they are vulnerable to lawsuits.” Besides that potential downside, the system does nothing for many broadcasters’ upside. They are being asked, in effect, to purchase or modify equipment, and change their business processes in order to broadcast alerts about events that hardly ever happen. Perhaps because the CRTC, the national broadcast regulator, stepped forward to facilitate a cross-Canada system, there is an assumption that public safety messages only deal with life-threatening events, and the system is well equipped to handle those but it can pass on much lower priority messages as well. Most alerts begin at the municipal level, however, and only a very few municipalities are able to quickly distribute public alerts through the many communications channels society uses today.

As Allport notes, “We are so very close to having the world’s leading emergency alerting systems. We simply need to better manage the risk of use, and then put the tools in the hands of our first responders, where communications delays measured in seconds have consequences.”

He went on to add that he believes that the success of NAADS will align with the quantity of authoritative content shared through it. “Right now NAADS is being used for rarely occurring major events, but if we add the volume of less severe authoritative information shared through MASAS, we can present an interesting business case to private communications companies. They are after all in the business of giving us the information we want, when we want it, how we can receive it. We have the systems in place to help them do just that.”

By tagging the messages appropriately, LMD’s can decide which alerts need to go out right away, which can hold until the next scheduled news bulletin and which ones they can ignore. As Temple said, “The system will also support things as simple as road closures, so obviously the idea is to create a hierarchy so that we’re not interfering with hockey game for a road closure, but if there is a life-threatening event, it would be easily identified to broadcasters who could then make that decision.”

Despite being operational for nearly a year and a half, NAADS is not seeing the same rapid adoption as MASAS. Allport says for that to happen the legal risks have to be better managed. “Broadcasters are looking for liability protection, and provinces are on the hook for anything that occurs within their province.”

Pelmorex is now under more pressure to make NAADS work, and that means signing up more distributors. “We can make it available but the CRTC has made it voluntary and so it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation, because in fairness to the broadcasters they are waiting for the system to be used before investing in the equipment necessary to receive these alerts and put them on their TV or radio stations.”

To date, one national regulator, the CRTC, and one national broadcaster, The Weather Channel and MétéoMédia have done all they can to deliver a national alerting system. The responsibility is now with provincial governments to empower their agencies and municipalities to make it work.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Security 2011