Peter Anderson Assists with Flood Response Communication Strategy

Dr. Peter Anderson and Steve Braham, assists British Columbia with emergency communication support for Fraser River flood response operations. As a member of the Advance Planning Unit at the Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centre (PREOC) in Surrey, Anderson conducts risk assessments on the provinces's critical communication infrastructures and develops back up communication strategies in the event of impacts.  

What a lot of people don’t realize is that approximately 25% of B.C’.s watersheds drain into the Fraser River system and eventually through the Lower Mainland. Over 500,000 people live on lower Fraser River flood plains and many of B.C.’s key industrial properties also reside there.

Throughout the winter and into early spring, snow packs in the contributing watersheds are monitored to determine what will be the potential equivalent spring water runoff (freshet) values. These results, combined with seasonal weather forecasts, form the basis for assessing annual flood risks.  This data is shared with emergency planners well in advance of the freshet and is regularly updated to enable communities to take protective measures such as strengthening dikes and engaging their citizens.

As water flow levels rise, certain measurements are used to trigger emergency responses.  For the Lower Mainland region, the Fraser River response plan is not a single overarching plan, but rather the integration of plans from multiple jurisdictions and agencies.  In B.C., response to civil emergencies is a shared responsibility, beginning with local response.  During local emergencies, communities usually establish an emergency operations centre (EOC) to coordinate response actions (including protective measures and evacuation alerts and orders) among multiple supporting agencies and the public.  If the response needs exceed local capacities, the provincial government, through Emergency Management British Columbia, assists with acquiring and coordinating external support including:

  • River flow forecasting and modelling
  • Situational awareness information and briefings
  • Evacuation planning
  • Sandbagging
  • Emergency social and health services support
  • Critical infrastructure risk assessments and protection
  • Disaster financial assistance.

Communication underpins all of these arrangements through a complex system of systems. Among the many key functions they support are hazard detection and monitoring; alerting and situational awareness; emergency activation; public warning and informing; tactical response, relief and multi-agency/jurisdiction coordination; resource sharing and management; public evacuation, sheltering and physco-socio support; citizen interaction and engagement, etc.

To a large degree the effectiveness of actions taken are dependent upon how well systems can interoperate and organizations are willing and able to share information in a timely manner.

While some public safety agencies have their own harderned communication systems, such as regional two-way radio networks, that provide some degree of inter-agency interoperability,  the vast majority of responders, supporting agencies, and the public, rely upon the same communication systems that are used on a daily basis; that is, our public telecommunications systems used to deliver common services such as Internet, cable TV, land line and mobile phone services.

Through digitization, almost all forms of electronic communication have now become IP-based and are linked to broadband networks which rely primarily on local and regional fibre optic cable infrastructures for interconnectivity and backhaul. Virtually all of our social, business, public works and utility services reply on these same infrastructures.  While there may be many alternative and/or substitutable modes of communication (voice, web, streaming, email, social media, etc.) almost all are using the same local fibre or nearby infrastructure to distribute content.  Some fibre networks have multiple routes and points of interconnection to provide redundancy and ensure higher service continuity. Others don’t, so all services reside in a single cable bundle that could become a single point of failure for everything.  Further, these fibre cables are often co-located along public rights-of-way, including highways, railways, bridges, etc. which may reside in high risk locations. Consequently, the reliability of much of our emergency communication has become a reflection of the pre-existing infrasrtucture design, location and protective arrangements. When these infrastructures are impacted, everyone within that area can be affected.

A major part of my work entails identifying those critical communications systems that are vital for supporting emergency response operations and public safety, especially mass evacuations. This includes working with emergency planners, responders and infrastructure/service providers to assess the potential risk posed by the hazard and develop back up communication strategies in the event of partial or total loss of services.  Among the many factors that need to be examined are the physical location of infrastructures and criticality to response and public safety, overall system capacity, vulnerability and level of redundancy, scale of impact, available protective measures, access and restoration capabilities and arrangements, community emergency communication preparedness and backup plans.  Prior to events, I participate in several regional and provincial planning initiatives aimed at improving communication resiliency. During events, I am often stationed at PREOCs as a member of the Advance Planning Unit and carry out this work in collaboration with the Province and local communities. The B.C. Government has established a Memorandum of Understanding with SFU to acknowledge these contributions. Last summer, I conducted similar work in the B.C. Interior in support of wildfire response operations. When a loss of service has occurred or appears imminent, I work with colleagues to implement back up communications arrangements which could entail helping to deploy emergency communication resources (such as satellite communications) to communities or work with communities to activate and/or strengthen existing arrangements, including amateur radio.  

Through my Telematics Research Lab, in collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Stephen Braham, we have also developed an array of emergency communications systems, including quick deploy grab-and-go kits and an advanced mobile emergency communications truck (AMECom) that serves as a mobile communications gateway to support impacted communities.  AMECom is one of Canada’s most state-of-the-art facilities that is equipped with an array of systems, including power generator, satellite Internet and phone terminals, telephone system, public safety two-way radios, video conferecing, WiFi, and an experimental LTE mobile cellular phone system. These resources are currently staged from the Surrey PREOC, but can be deployed anywhere in B.C. as required.

There are important improvements in flood response communication.  This year, they included improved river flow modelling, mapping and situational information sharing among responders, planners and the public.  However, given the rapid changes in communication technology and high dependency upon public telecommunications infrastructure, flood response communication will remain a "Work-in-progress". Through my SFU Telematic Research Lab, we use real world operational experiences to delve deeper into systemic emergency communication issues that can be more systematically studied in our School program and engage researchers and students (both grad and undergrad) in projects and coursework. Where feasible, we also provide RA opportunities for students during events. Several students have gone on to develop active careers in this field.