Improving public safety communications

The intersection of telecommunications policy and public safety has been failing Canadians.

There have been failures on two distinct fronts: public alerting and the development of a public safety broadband network.

As reported by Colin Freeze in the Globe and Mail, Canada has had a “direct-to-cellphone” alerting system (Alert Ready) operating since 2018, but the RCMP in Nova Scotia didn’t know how to use it.

The Alert Ready website describes the roles and responsibilities of various agencies in the delivery of public alert messages, which are transmitted to compatible mobile devices, TV and radio broadcasters and satellite and wireline broadcast distributors.

The system starts with a government-authorized user (provincial, territorial and federal government organizations, and emergency management officials) who:

  • Specifies the type of alert [e.g. amber alert, tornado, etc.] as well as whether it is to be broadcast immediately because of imminent threat to life.
  • Chooses the content of the message, including which language(s) the message will be issued in.
  • Chooses the format of the message, including whether the message will be sent as text only, audio only or in both text and audio formats.
  • Specifies why and when the alert is sent.
  • Ensures that the alert is updated and/or cancelled.
  • Specifies the geographical areas covered by the alert.

Given the amount of testing that the system has undergone, and the number of Amber Alerts or other alerts that many of us have received at all hours of the day and night, it seems inconceivable that anyone responsible for public safety communications would be unaware of the system.

How is it possible that management in an emergency services organization like the RCMP did not ensure training and procedures were in place? Where was leadership from the federal government?

The CRTC ensured that a working notification system was developed, and paid for it by an artificial tax on TV distributors, part of the government’s parallel tax scheme that I described 4 years ago in “A taxing situation”.

This was a failure in leadership by those responsible for public safety.

When the police receive a new vehicle, the car manufacturer may be responsible for training the police agency on how to activate the lights and how to activate the siren, where to find the hood release, how to accelerate and how to brake. But ultimately, it is up to the police to develop procedures on when it is appropriate to use these capabilities. Police car makers can build high performance vehicles, but it is up to the police to determine when it is appropriate for the police engage in a high speed chase. The vehicle has lights and sirens, but the manufacturer has nothing to do with deciding when it is appropriate to activate them. The builders of the Alert Ready system can train users on how to use the system, but cannot develop the procedures for when the system should be activated.

Last weekend, there were outages for 9-1-1 service in parts of the Yukon and all of the Northwest Territories. In some locations, 9-1-1 was reported to be available from mobile phones but not landlines. This is a standard Alert Ready type (“A 911 service alert happens when there is a disruption or outage of telecommunication services between the public and emergency responders”). Were alerts sent? If not, why?

From the beginning, I have called for reviews of the system, suggesting “Canada should have a multi-agency formal process to review each use of the National Public Alert System, to help develop best practices”. Tragically, in Nova Scotia, the agency charged with provincial policing had no awareness of the system, let alone an awareness of best practices, in a time of crisis and a truly urgent need for the public to receive notifications. No wireless alert was issued; no notification was sent to broadcasters for their retransmission.

On the second file, the development of a public safety broadband network, the government has again failed to provide leadership, squandering valuable spectrum and failing to deliver communications capabilities that every other sector of the economy takes for granted. For a decade, 20 MHz of valuable 700 MHz spectrum has been sitting unused, reserved for some mythical public safety broadband network to provide first responders with interoperable multi-media communications capabilities.

The general public has enjoyed these capabilities for years. We call it WhatsApp, or Facetime, or any number of competing apps. Need more security? The business community has a number of solutions, none of which require billions of dollars worth of spectrum and billions more to build out a network. Any other organization would be harshly criticised for not using spectrum. The public safety spectrum is idle and has been for I wrote more than 10 years. In March, “Public safety within the public network”, talking about a virtual network solution – an architecture that is used in the US with its FirstNet.

Last week, the FCC celebrated its first 10 years of wireless public alerts in the US. There is much we can learn from other jurisdictions for public alerts and for public safety networking. The first step requires recognizing we have a problem.

Le meglio è l’inimico del bene. Perfection is the enemy of the good. No system can be expected to be perfect, but surely some kind of solution is better than nothing.

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