By Marianne Meadahl
illustration by Andy McMillan

Peter Anderson’s passion is making the world a safer place. The impact of his nearly four decades of improving emergency communications systems at home and globally can be felt from the coastal mountains and rural towns of B.C. to the tsunami-torn shores of South Asian communities, and is now spreading into northern Canada.

An associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, Anderson (BGS’73, MA’77) has had a long-standing career in the field of emergency communications and has empowered organizations and communities throughout the world. In 2013, he was named to the Order of B.C. for “bettering the lives of fellow citizens.”

Last fall, he was feted with a lifetime achievement award from the Pacific Northwest Preparedness Society for his “real-world uses of communications in emergency management – for example, setting up radio antennas on the side of the Sheraton Landmark to enable early wireless uses of the World Wide Web for emergency communications.”

Anderson’s commitment to making a difference in the lives of others was first inspired by his own father, who was injured and left a paraplegic when Anderson was 14. “I grew up knowing something about resiliency,” he recalls. “Our family’s experiences left a huge impression on me. What had the biggest impact on me is the idea that, simply, you never know what you can do until you try.”

For Anderson, it has always been about enabling people to build capacity, wherever they live. And no community is too far to reach.

Within days of the 2004 catastrophic tsunami that struck South Asia, killing more than 250,000 people, Anderson travelled to Sri Lanka and paced the broken shorelines in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. There he formed ideas on how to help local communities devise and implement their own emergency communications strategies, eventually collaborating with local organizations to develop the Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project, designed to improve the capabilities of the country when disaster strikes.

Railway station in Sri Lanka destroyed by 2004 tsunami.
Improvised Sri Lankan village satellite radio antenna for receiving hazard warnings.

The pilot project generated a capacity-building experience that is leading to community communications improvements. “It’s not just about the technology; there has to be a social process in place,” says Anderson, who will return in June for a conference commemorating the disaster’s 10-year anniversary.

“I’ve been lucky over the years. I’ve always been accepted by people wherever I go, and I’ve tried to work alongside them as a colleague, not as the expert,” he adds. “Respecting the capabilities of others helps lead to good, sustainable solutions.”

As part of his tsunami-relief focus, Anderson is working with provincial and regional emergency officials to help assess the needs of those in remote B.C. While B.C.’s tsunami-warning emergency plan has improved considerably in recent years, Anderson will use new funding from the Canadian Safety and Security Program to continue developing ways to improve these systems, including testing new technologies.

Along B.C.’s north and central coast, where tsunami “watches and warnings” are occasionally issued as a result of strong Pacific earthquakes, he is testing the efficacy of satellite and other technologies for regions with limited cell phone and Internet service. Further north, he and his colleague, Stephen Braham, are developing new rapid-deployable communications systems for use across northern Canada.

Anderson’s footprint has also been planted in remote communities scattered throughout B.C. In 2003 he designed an emergency communications vehicle to take resources on the road. Operated through his Telematics Research Lab, it is equipped with its own satellite dish and a variety of other communication capabilities, including wireless Internet, phones, two-way radios and a vertically extendable remote camera.

Through an arrangement with the province’s emergency program, Emergency Management BC (EMBC), Anderson dispatches the vehicle to remote areas in the wake of extreme weather, floods, landslides, forest fires, and other hazard events. The idea for the vehicle grew out of experience gained when the forest fires struck the Okanagan and other interior regions of the province in 2003. At the time, Anderson volunteered to work in the Kamloops-based provincial emergency operations coordination centre, supervising the protection of mountaintop telecommunications repeaters and other critical lifeline communication systems.

For Anderson, it has always been about enabling people to build capacity, wherever they live. And no community is too far to reach.

Anderson also continues to streamline and refine emergency communications systems affecting local mountain regions. His relationships with EMBC and local search-and-rescue groups have resulted in numerous collaborations, including the testing of a variety of communication technologies in extreme and remote environments affecting coastal mountains. This expertise was made available during the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted in Vancouver and Whistler.

The collaborations led to his friendship with the late Tim Jones (BA’80), who headed the North Shore Rescue (NSR) team and who died of a heart attack in January.

“Tim was an early adopter of new techniques and continuously pushed the envelope to extend both the scope and range of communication technologies that could support life-critical search-and-rescue operations across the North Shore mountain regions,” recalls Anderson. “We worked together to help NSR establish Internet ‘hot spots’ at the locations where it staged and coordinated its searches, so that it could incorporate new information on weather conditions and mapping into searches, and also connect with friends and relatives of those missing to get more details.

“We also worked together to host NSR’s Seymour Mountain radio repeater at SFU’s Burnaby campus to ensure the best line-of-site radio coverage along the slopes of Mount Seymour, where NSR has to carry out many of its most dangerous rescues. For many years, the radio repeater sat in my office beside my desk.Tim will be sorely missed.”

While the technology continues to evolve, it was Anderson’s work with early high-tech systems that initially spawned his international reputation. Between 1989 and 1992, he spearheaded the design and implementation of the Australian Disaster Management Information Network, a national computer bulletin board network linking all of the country’s key national and state emergency management organizations. During this same period, he was approached by the United Nations to lay the groundwork for the U.N.’s communication strategy for its International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction program, which started in 1990, and put in place its first Internet gateway, bringing the international body into the high-tech age.

He also created EPIX (emergency preparedness information exchange), which became the U.N. disaster relief organization’s main server as well as a key public Internet server for many other agencies, including Emergency Preparedness Canada and B.C.’s provincial emergency program.

“For over a decade SFU played a major role in assisting with communications for every major disaster that the U.N. had been called on to assist,” says Anderson, whose system distributed thousands of reports on natural disasters and requests for international assistance. “In the beginning, what we were doing was considered very revolutionary. We were the Internet source. It was the first instance of the U.N. using the Internet for disaster-relief activities.”

Anderson and his SFU colleagues, in partnership with the federal government and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), also built and hosted the first Internet-based system to facilitate civil emergency planning among the 22 countries of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

Peter Anderson (centre) receives the Order of British Columbia from Premier Christy Clark (left) and Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon (right).

His international reach goes back even further. Anderson was part of a team from SFU that in the late 1970s carried out a research project at Sudan’s University of Juba to help establish communication networks for enabling distance education in the southern region of the country. That experience planted the seeds of Anderson’s long-spanning career, as there, he put his early research to practical use. During his time at Juba, Anderson honed his passion for the global potential of his chosen field and understood the difference he could make by keeping people safe and informed.

“Carrying out research for SFU at Juba was a big mandate, as the area was extremely remote and it was in most cases impossible to get in and out of the country,” recalls Anderson, who devised communication links between the university and local villages using two-way radios. “It was a bold move for a university back then, and to say it was perilous is quite an understatement.”

Anderson and SFU colleagues travelled between SFU and Juba for over four years in between two of the country’s major civil wars, working with little food and often in poor conditions.

“We were a group of committed researchers who genuinely wanted to make a difference, even though the conditions were far from great,” recalls Anderson, who spent weeks on the logistics just to get into the country. The researchers typically entered with no set plan for getting back out, but Anderson always found a way.

“Applied international research was not yet something a lot of universities were doing,” he adds. “But we saw it as an opportunity, not to bring solutions but to share expertise that would enable the people to focus on their own self-sufficiency and enhance self-determination.”

Despite desperate conditions – Anderson was sick for a year after they finally pulled out – success came, but slowly. “It took us three years to negotiate with the government and security officials for a radio link between Khartoum and Juba,” recalls Anderson, whose team eventually established an amateur radio station. “Today they are facing new challenges, developing, among many things, its communication systems.”

Shortly after the news of the 2011 Sudanese referendum, which saw southern Sudan vote for independence, Anderson learned that Juba’s vice-chancellor, Professor Aggrey Abate, was coming to Ottawa for a state-arranged visit. With thoughts of returning to his Sudanese research, three decades later, he travelled to meet with Abate to discuss possibilities.

Since then Sudan has faced growing challenges, and with other projects to continue in B.C. and further afield, Anderson has put the idea on hold. But he hasn’t dismissed it completely. “I first heard the news about Sudan’s referendum on the radio, and the report included students singing – they were from Juba,” he recalls. “It brought tears to my eyes. Not a week passes that I don’t think about Sudan and the work we did there. It’s why I’ve spent so much of my life doing what I do. Now, their needs are even greater.”

Anderson can’t say when he’ll be able to return, but it’s a safe bet he will try. And that would bring a far-reaching career that has impacted the lives of so many full circle.

Photography: Sri Lankan railway station and antenna, courtesy Peter Anderson, Order Of British Columbia photo, Don Craig, Courtesy the Province of British Columbia