Much has changed since SARS struck in 2003, yet the January 2007 SARS Final Report identifies a number of areas that are still of concern to many governments as they prepare their own emergency response plans. One of the main issues from the report was the lack of communication and coordination between front-line emergency workers, and command and control centres in their attempts to contain the outbreak. There was no effective method to share information between emergency response teams, such as police, paramedics and hospital workers. Communication to support agencies and officials from all three levels of government was confused and unclear. A system to track clusters of illness or death and monitor the outbreak’s development was also missing.
The report’s recommendations are not falling on deaf ears. Across the country, many governments are examining its communication recommendations as they work to establish an effective pandemic and emergency infrastructure.
Emergency command and control
New technology solutions have also emerged that specifically address many issues cited in the Final Report. One that has gained attention is the TELUS SafetyNet emergency management operating system, a single platform that integrates internal and public notification, asset tracking, incident logging, data mapping using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for decision support, and inter-agency communications capabilities.
The TELUS SafetyNet system is a command and control solution designed to help government, first responders and industry manage a wide range of emergencies and hazards, including natural disasters, such as floods, fires, and pandemics, and man-made situations such as chemical spills and terrorist attacks.
Emergency officials can visually summarize data on a map in real-time to monitor where an outbreak is occurring and calculate its impact on the community. For example, in the case of a pandemic, crucial questions about the location and availability of hospital beds, drug supplies and other key resources can be answered quickly.
Rapid notification of government, agency and frontline workers can be quickly accomplished via secure calling, e-mail, fax or text message using interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Officials can track who acknowledged receipt of the message, and provide immediate sources for more information. The same approach can be used to notify and provide updates to the public as an incident evolves.
Emergency response teams, such as fire, police, ambulance and support agencies, provincial and federal officials can collaboratively communicate, log the response and recovery to an event, and ensure everyone is working off the same page.
In the case of an emergency evacuation within a community, the IVR system can quickly send thousands of warning calls to residents. When the message is received, a resident can push a number key to receive further assistance if needed. As emergency crews go to the affected area, they can target those homes that requested help, and knock only on the doors of homes that did not respond to the initial phone call. The system can track the status of the evacuation, and the emergency workers’ progress as events unfold.
Developed with direct feedback from end users
The roots of the TELUS SafetyNet system trace back to the needs of emergency responders. Emergency Management Alberta (EMA), the province’s primary emergency planning agency, was looking to develop an effective emergency response plan in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Working in collaboration with EMA, TELUS created a state-of-the-art integrated emergency management system that dramatically improved the effectiveness of emergency responders. The solution has been used in Alberta to address a variety of needs, including the management of floods, forest fires, and the 2003 BSE outbreak.
It has also has been adopted and evaluated by a number of different officials and agencies. One of Canada’s largest health districts, Edmonton’s Capital Health Region, started implementing it in September 2006.
Putting the technology to work for pandemic planning
Dr. Gerry Predy, Capital Health’s chief medical officer, believes the emergency management system has dramatically improved his region’s ability to handle disasters including a flu pandemic. The notification aspect is of great benefit in particular to the region’s 30,000 employees and 2,500 doctors.
“During a pandemic, when conditions can change hour by hour, ongoing communication becomes very important,” says Dr. Predy. “The automatic notification eliminates the need for staff to be tied up making phone calls, freeing them to concentrate on other tasks.
“Not only is it fast, but we can track who acknowledged receipt of the message and provide immediate sources for more information. That can be very helpful at a time when you’re trying to manage an increased workload and may also be dealing with reduced staff levels due to illness,” adds Dr. Predy.
He notes the same technology can be used to alert the public and provide information updates as the situation evolves.
“Pandemic planning logistics for Capital Health region are extensive,” says Dr. Predy. “Maintaining ongoing communication is crucial to protecting the maximum number of residents when the pandemic arrives.”
Capital Health is looking to expand the system’s effectiveness by testing its geographic capabilities by the end of 2007. Capital Health would be able to interpret crisis details in a variety of ways through different maps that could display a wide range of factors and measurement such as wind direction, road, population density and ground water well sites. With this tool, the source of outbreaks can be mitigated and contained with resources deployed in the most efficient way possible.
Health command and control centres can add their own data crucial to knowing how to best handle conditions. This data could include drug supplies, available hospital beds, number of patients entering a hospital and the location of temporary treatment centres. In this format, a coordinator can see at a glance which hospitals are at capacity and then divert GPS-monitored ambulances to locations with more space. The data augments information already supplied by government or other private sector enterprises.
Emergency preparedness in British Columbia
Back in 1999, the B.C. government began setting up pandemic plans of its own through its Ministry of Health. Activities included informing and educating the public on maintaining good health and preventing the spread of contagious diseases. When the SARS crisis happened in the spring of 2003, the province developed its emergency planning capabilities more aggressively.
There was also a series of other emergencies that reinforced this position including the BSE outbreak that ravaged the Alberta beef industry in June 2003, the detection of avian flu among chickens in Abbottsford, BC in May 2004, and internationally, the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in December 2004.
One of the first upgraded capabilities using TELUS technology was the BC Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) tsunami warning system. The technology could automatically send warnings to hundreds of first responders and key stakeholders within a few minutes. Testing of this technology was conducted by Industry Canada in Port Coquitlam, a community just