Peter Anderson: Fighting fires with better emergency communication

November 01, 2021
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By Kirsten Rose

It was a busy summer for SFU School of Communication associate professor Peter Anderson. He spent the season coordinating efforts to protect wildfire response and other critical communication systems as the lead for critical infrastructure protection in the Advance Planning Unit of the Central Provincial Regional Emergency Coordination Centre during an unprecedented wildfire season.

In late June of 2021, British Columbia faced an extreme fire risk rating due to a sudden heat dome, something Anderson says he has never witnessed in the over 30 years he has been engaged in wildfire response. “Wildfire seasons are occurring earlier, lasting longer, and affecting more regions,” says Anderson, “this summer was the third most severe season on record, next to 2017 and 2018. In terms of potential risks, and despite tragic impacts, I think we got off lightly.”

As an expert in emergency communication, Anderson initially helped Emergency Management British Columbia with conducting risk assessments on critical infrastructures that were impacted by the unprecedented temperatures brought by heat dome, causing flooding from rapid snow and glacial melting in the mountain region between Pemberton and Harrison Lake.

Following these risk assessments, Anderson was asked to aid with assessing the impacts caused by the Lytton Creek Fire and with arranging for alternate telecommunications services for the province and local communities, including the use of his Telematics Research Lab’s Advanced Emergency Communications vehicle, coordinated by colleague Stephen Braham. These duties continued throughout the season until early September for all major BC Interior wildfires.

One of the breakthrough projects that Anderson contributed to this summer was the expanded use of a shared “Common Operating Picture” online mapping system developed by the province’s GeoBC.

This system allows local and provincial authorities, critical infrastructure providers and other stakeholders to view and share current wildfire boundaries, overlaid with populations at-risk and other important information, to aid with evacuation, response and recovery planning. Anderson assisted in adding new layers to the system that identify critical infrastructures that were impacted.

Anderson said he is able to incorporate his experiences from the summer into new projects that allow a more interdisciplinary approach to studying and developing strategies that address crisis communication issues. In the course CMNS 356 Communication to Mitigate Disasters, Anderson says he helps students position themselves within their own communities to understand their personalized risk in a disaster and enable an understanding of local risk reduction practices. Students are presented with recent case studies and presentations from members of the risk reduction community who have participated in these events.

Anderson’s passion for the course material, and his real-world experiences, make for an engaging course that motivates many of his students to explore a career in this field.

“Being engaged in real world events allows me to better identify and appreciate the complexities of social interaction during crises and the critical role that communication plays during this digital age.”