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COLLABORATION

Ready for Anything

COLLABORATION

Ready for Anything

COLLABORATION

Ready for Anything

Concern for people’s safety has driven SFU's Peter Anderson to create emergency communication systems that have been adopted the world over.

For nearly four decades, SFU’s Peter Anderson has designed and implemented emergency communication systems the world over, making areas at-risk for disasters such as forest fires, rockslides, tsunamis and disease outbreaks more prepared to face them. Getting his start at a time when applied international research in such systems was still emerging, Anderson–and by extension SFU–were poised to become trailblazers.

An associate professor with the University’s School of Communication since 1997, he is also an alumnus of the program and garnered much of his inspiration to work in telecommunications from Patricia Hindley and Gail Martin, two of the professors that founded the School. “I entered the field interested in how communication technology could be used to stimulate community engagement and social change,” he says.

Anderson would go on to devote the main thrust of his career to emergency communication applications, an interest that developed partly after participating in an early 1970s outreach research collaboration between SFU and a university in civil war-torn Sudan. The project experimented with using two-way radio to establish communication networks between the university and surrounding villages to allow sharing of intelligence. “My interest continued to grow from there and I was involved with amateur radio communication during events like the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake and 1987 Edmonton Tornado,” he says.  

Further, with the emergence of information technology, Anderson was intrigued by how it could be used to build bridges across disciplines and jurisdictions to bring together hazards experts with those impacted by hazards. In the 1980s, he created EPIX (the emergency preparedness information exchange), a virtual bulletin board platform that he used as a model to develop a national disaster information network for Australia, and later, for B.C.

In 1993, Anderson developed and hosted at SFU the United Nations’ first internet tool for humanitarian relief activities, a system that utilized some of the first automated mailing lists and distributed thousands of reports and appeals for global assistance with disasters such as cyclones, floods. He went on to pioneer development of internet systems for other international and Canadian humanitarian and disaster reduction organizations.

And, within days of the shocking 2004 tsunami that killed more than 250,000 in South Asia, Anderson landed in Sri Lanka to be of assistance. Over the next three years, he worked with local NGOs and emergency officials on techniques to warn remote coastal communities of impending tsunamis and other disasters. These techniques have since been applied elsewhere, including along rural coastal stretches of B.C. where a major earthquake would put thousands within reach of a tsunami. And, since the beginning, Anderson and his collaborators have been committed to empowering high-risk communities to become self-sufficient, and then offering support as needed.

In further collaboration with the government of Sri Lanka and the U.N. International Telecommunications Union, Anderson devised an advanced mobile emergency-communications vehicle to serve the country’s many remote villages. Equipped with technologies such as an advanced communication system for sending voice and data via satellite, cellular, landlines and wireless Internet, a similar SFU vehicle has been deployed closer to home in B.C. for use during extreme events such as floods, wildfires and avian influenza outbreaks.

Today, much of Anderson’s work involves collaborating with communities to develop risk reduction strategies, such as refining coastal B.C.’s tsunami warning systems in the aftermath of the 2012 Haida Gwaii Earthquake. He is also working with colleague Stephen Braham on a new, national rapid-deployable broadband public safety communication system, and they have also been collaborating with space agencies such as NASA regarding applying similar approaches to new space exploration communication concepts.

Speaking to what has sustained his motivation over the years, Anderson says, “We are facing ever-increasing challenges arising from factors such as globalization, mega-cities, pollution and climate change. As a concerned citizen I cannot separate my academic work from wanting to help improve people’s safety and lives.” 

References

Dr. Peter Anderson is director of the Telematics Research Lab and associate professor of communication at SFU. He has delivered lectures, seminars, workshops and presentations at numerous conferences and professional events in Canada and abroad including China, Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Chile, Japan, Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the US. He is currently collaborating with Canadian federal, provincial and territorial public safety agencies, local authorities and responders on new methods for improving intra and interagency communications for mission critical operations, public warning and situational awareness. In 2013, he was appointed to the Order of British Columbia, the province’s highest honour which recognizes those who have dedicated themselves to bettering the lives of their fellow citizens. That same year, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Preparedness Society for his applied research contributions.    

Q & A with Peter Anderson

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?

It is community driven, interdisciplinary and interactive.

What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?

Be prepared for the long haul. It's often not a single major breakthrough that makes the greatest contribution, but rather the culmination of many small and varied approaches over time. Treat failed attempts as just as valuable learning experiences as successful outcomes. 

Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?

Through gaining people’s trust and support by being open and willing to engage them as active partners in the research and its application.