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Closer Look: How the Canadian Government Uses Emergency Alerting To Protect Citizens

Closer Look: How the Canadian Government Uses Emergency Alerting To Protect Citizens

Canada’s new nationwide emergency alert program says it best: “Your phone has the power to save a life.”

In October of 2014, an assailant shot and killed a military corporal near Ottawa’s War Memorial. The assailant continued onto Parliament Hill, intent on doing more damage. He was stopped before more lives were lost, but the event proved to be a wake-up call. Security at the Ottawa House of Commons, and security across Canada, was in need of an upgrade.

In the past few years, Canada has built out Alert Ready, a nationwide emergency alert program. Alert Ready is a partnership between federal, provincial, and territorial agencies, as well as wireless service providers and private enterprises. The goal: to alert Canadians immediately in the event of a crisis, to catalyze action and keep everyone safe.

On Parliament Hill, new measures go beyond the Alert Ready program. A Parliament Emergency Notification System (ENS) has been built and powered by BlackBerry AtHoc. It deploys messages through several channels at once: a desktop pop-up, email, an SMS text, landline and mobile calls, radios, RSS feeds, instant messages, pager systems, television screens, and siren and PA systems. With multiple ways to reach the public to warn of threats, the BlackBerry AtHoc system can integrate into both analog and digital channels.

Sanjay Saini, a general manager with BlackBerry AtHoc, spoke about the system during BlackBerry’s Secure World Tour in Toronto: “The government has a duty of responsibility to its citizens,” he said. “...You have to protect that force or else they can’t protect the public.”

Canada tested its nationwide alert system on May 9th, through a blaring alarm via citizens’ smartphones. The following week, Ontario residents received another alert. This time, it wasn’t a drill - there was an Amber Alert in the Thunder Bay region. Both alerts prompted discussions about when and how alerts should be used, and how jarring they should be.

BlackBerry AtHoc was deployed in 2015 at Parliament Hill and now reaches more than 5,000 users within the area. The AtHoc system in Parliament Hill is slightly more complex than Canada’s standard Alert Ready system, which stops at alert functionality. The AtHoc Suite performs a variety of crisis communication functions, from mapping to data analysis to visibility into personnel safety status and task completion.

Saini explained that the first question an employer needs answered after an emergency alert goes out is, “Are my people okay?” The AtHoc system was built with that question in mind.

As he explained at the Secure World Tour, BlackBerry AtHoc’s functionality is allowing managers and officials to answer that question, in Parliament Hill and beyond. For example, AtHoc Connect, a product that is part of the AtHoc Suite, allows organizations to invite external parties and organizations to plug into their alerting system.

In a situation where administrators need to account for personnel, they now have the capacity to check into individual status updates. For example, if only three people on Parliament Hill haven’t responded to an alert sent to 5,000, responders can prioritize their efforts to focus on those three individuals.

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

The general Canadian Alert Ready system may even be able to pick up pointers from the Parliament Hill ENS. For example, Alert Ready messages are broadcast in English and French, to account for both official languages in Canada. Through the ENS, users can set their language preference and receive messages only in their preferred language. Also, BlackBerry AtHoc’s self-service portals are more secure, for users who are reticent to share contact information and personal data in exchange for receiving alerts.

For more information from the BlackBerry Secure World Tour, check out the highlights.

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