New dimensions expand emergency communications

An emergency is no time to be playing telephone tag or leaving garbled voicemail messages. The marriage of automated messaging with geographic information systems (GIS) technology can boost the public sector’s ability to do reliable, pinpointed emergency communications of the right information to the right people.

Human communications can be woefully slow and erratic. “If a plane crashed near Niagara Falls, the fire chief would call two people, and each of those would call two more, and so on,” says Bryan Minnes, project manager at Markham, Ont.-based Voicegate Corp., which provides automated messaging systems for emergency preparedness.

The technology for text-to-speech and dialing engines is relatively new and has only recently been developed for disaster recovery, he says. Coupled with GIS technology, information relating to a specific area can be automatically broadcast with maximum efficiency.

For example, if a train with toxic chemicals derailed, the integrated system could model the toxic plume’s spread based on GIS feeds about local weather and topography, then select all phone numbers of homes within the affected area for emergency communications, says Neil Spooner, Ottawa district manager for ESRI Canada, which partners with Voicegate to provide GIS systems and databases.

Minnes says the system is designed to work with an emergency plan, allowing organizations to store over a million contacts in a central database and to create subsets based on their geography and function.

For recurring events such as power outages and floods, pre-recorded messages can be automatically sent en masse to affected parties and emergency response (ER) workers in an area via any communications device. For unpredictable disasters, an ER manager can quickly create an area list and disseminate messages to targeted recipients.

To ensure a human being has answered, not voicemail, the system can be programmed to have the respondent react by inputting a number. “The ones that don’t acknowledge are passed back to the GIS system, which identifies those that need alternate forms of contact,” says Spooner, adding that the system can map the areas where people need to be alerted and provide status updates.

Two-way communications are possible for roster management in medical emergencies. Using interactive voice response technology, the system can call all nurses in a region, identifying the nature of the emergency and asking a series of questions: whether they’re available for duty, approximate arrival time and so on.

“If you have 200 nurses but only 30 are needed, the system will redial until it gets 30,” says Minnes. Maintaining the accuracy of contact information is paramount, as the database is no good if it’s out of date, he adds. “For many government agencies with thousands of workers, this is a huge challenge.”

To deal with this, the system periodically performs automated validation checks of the contact information, calling contacts and redialing until a response is received.
“This makes the ROI of the system easier to digest, as it removes the costs of human database management,” says Minnes.

The RCMP is at the testing phase of its Voicegate implementation, says Staff Sgt. Paul Marsh, a Forces spokesman, and many other government organizations are eyeing the service.

“Voice is the next stage,” says Paul Beach, project manager at the Community Geomatics Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., which uses its advanced GIS systems for text mailouts via e-mail and snail mail throughout the region.

In the spring, satellite maps of homes with swimming pools were targeted for public health broadcasts about the West Nile virus, asking residents to drain their pool covers to prevent mosquito breeding in the stagnant water.

The GIS system was also used recently to track a hepatitis B outbreak, mapping the areas where cases were occurring and creating a mass mailout.

“Right now, we have a superbug [Clostridium difficile] outbreak at our hospital – there have been about 20 deaths,” says Beach, adding the community is using GIS to track staff and patients’ comings and goings to contain its spread.

Sault Ste. Marie’s approach to setting up an independent centre of excellence, pooled funding and sharing of its GIS information is unique, says Beach, pointing out the region has more GIS data than others.

“All communities would be interested in an integrated system. But for most of them, putting the communications in place is probably a lesser problem than getting the GIS data to support it,” he says, explaining that many municipal GIS systems languish due to lack of funding and skills, even in big cities such as Toronto and Ottawa, and data is rarely shared across boundaries.

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