Parliament Hill’s own emergency alert system powered by BlackBerry AtHoc

Canada’s new nationwide emergency alert system to wireless service providers was tested on May 9, jolting to attention many citizens with a blaring alarm coming directly from their smartphones.

Ontario residents had another alert blast out the following week, for a real Amber Alert situation near Thunder Bay, Ont. The system’s tests have prompted many discussions about what when is the right time to use an alert capability as far-reaching as wireless devices, and just how alarming that alert should be. While the concept of being alerted to an imminent emergency is new to the public at large, mobile alerting systems have been implemented in enterprises and large public organizations for many years. That includes in the nation’s capital at Parliament Hill as well, where BlackBerry AtHoc was first deployed in June 2015 and has expanded to reach more than 5,000 users since then. (Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry completed the acquisition of California-based AtHoc in September 2015).

The system was implemented following a day that is seared into the memories of many Canadians on Oct. 22, 2014. On that day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at Ottawa’s War Memorial, where the soldier was posted on sentry duty. Zehaf-Bibeau continued on with his gun to Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, where the heart of Canada’s political leadership were holding caucus meetings. The attacker was shot dead before he could take any more lives. The sentiment that followed was clear: security at the House of Commons had to be improved.

Sanjay Saini, BlackBerry AtHoc
Sanjay Saini, general manager with BlackBerry AtHoc, says that the emergency alert system can be custom integrated into even legacy analog communications systems.

Included in that effort was building a Parliamentary Emergency Notification System (ENS), powered by AtHoc.

“The government has a duty of responsibility to its citizens,” says Sanjay Saini, general manager of BlackBerry AtHoc. “But you have to protect that force or else they can’t protect the public.”

Saini spoke at BlackBerry Secure World Tour in Toronto on May 10, during Emergency Preparedness Week. See highlights from the event in BlackBerry’s video below:

The ENS can deploy messages via a desktop pop-up alert, email, SMS text, landline and mobile voice calls, handheld radio, RSS feeds, instant messaging, paging systems, TV screens, and even siren and PA integrations. Similar to the Alert Ready system that has multiple ways to reach the public with warnings of imminent threats, AtHoc can integrate with just about any communications system be it analog or digital.

“You have to let people know there’s an active shooter and provide next steps,” Saini says.

AtHoc also goes a step beyond the Alert Ready system, which stops after the public has been informed. It has four modules in its suite: Alert, Connect, Account, and Collect. In an enterprise situation, this can help administrators know who is accounted for and who might still need help. For example, if there are just three people on Parliament Hill that haven’t responded to an alert sent to 5,000, then responders would know they have to focus their efforts on those individuals.

As Saini puts it, the next question an employer often has after an emergency alert has gone out is “Are my people OK?”

BlackBerry AtHoc - welfare check
An example of the employee welfare check conducted through BlackBerry AtHoc.

The Connect component allows organizations to invite other parties to join their alerting system. At the public level, health and safety agencies could use this to exchange information.

“It’s like a LinkedIn directory, but organizations that can exchange information for a crisis,” Saini says.

There are other differences between the Parliment Hill ENS and Canada’s Alert Ready system and perhaps some ways Alert Ready could be improved. While the Alert Ready messages are broadcast in both English and French, the ENS systems are delivered only in the preferred language of the recipient. Also, in some cases end-users aren’t willing to share their contact information and personal data in order to receive the alerts. So AtHoc created self-service portals that allowed users to set up and control their profiles themselves.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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