The Road to Shared Situational Awareness During Disasters

By Ernie MacGillivray and Doug Allport

This is a short story about innovation, and the collaboration that enabled it.

Two-years ago, a colleague suggested that Doug Allport had discovered the “secret sauce” to shared situational awareness during disasters. Doug observes that if true, it took a decade, many people and numerous projects to get us to where we are today.

In 2008, Doug was introduced to the challenges of shared situational awareness by Ernie MacGillivray,  then Director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization. He and his team were in the middle of a province wide, three-hundred-year flood event and everyone involved was struggling to get the information needed to assess impacts, prioritize tasks and apply resources.

It became clear that the volume of messages and information requests exceeded the team’s capacity. It was also evident how poor conventional communications like email, fax and voice are for describing impacts and the disposition of resources.

LESSONS LEARNED: Email, fax and phone need to give way to more efficient communications methods during disasters. Stakeholders need to share information in such a way that it does not need further processing to be useful to the many recipients of the information. Stakeholders needed to see the shared situational awareness on a map.

The Innovation Pathway

In the wake of this record flood New Brunswick undertook a number of initiatives to improve communications capabilities. Notably, Ernie hired Doug as the project/product manager to develop a geo-based situational awareness system. New Brunswick had been supporting a situational awareness technical study led by Philip Dawe at GeoConnections Canada, and they had funding to support the development of a multi-jurisdictional demonstration project, to share situational information in real time, between the State of Maine and New Brunswick government agencies.

They met with stakeholders from all levels of government, from both sides of the border. There was strong support for moving forward. By March 2009, they had defined, developed, tested and implemented an information exchange for sharing and consuming situational awareness information between operations systems. They connected the provinces incident management system and GIS to the exchange, along with an incident management system used by many municipalities, the State of Maine’s GIS from another vendor, and a few map centric systems used by federal agencies, including the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces. For those without geospatial systems, they added easy to use “common tools” and a symbology set for adding and viewing the information shared.

LESSONS LEARNED: No one application will be supported by all stakeholders; an exchange is needed. Nearly all situational awareness information is non-sensitive, and in the public domain. Keeping sensitive information out of scope is the key to speedy outcomes involving numerous stakeholders. A simple complete solution, that does not require IT support, is key to rapid adoption by all, and to connecting all stakeholders. 

Late 2009, GeoConnections had them conduct a national demonstration of what we had implemented in New Brunswick. There was strong interest in a national version, and the late Jack Pagotto, of Defence Research Development Canada’s (DRDC) Public Safety Technical Program (PSTP) got approval to develop a national Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS). Jack hired Doug as lead, and Jacob Westfall (NetAlerts) as the developer for the project.

The national MASAS was adopted rapidly by hundreds of organizations across the country by all levels of government and key infrastructure owners. Vendors such as ESRI, E-Team, WebEOC and Sentinel Systems, built compatible interfaces. MASAS worked seamlessly with U.S. federal and state situational awareness systems, and supported cross border exercises and technology demonstrations. The system was used through floods, fires and hazardous material spills. It was all very positive, with one exception. It didn’t attract a sufficient number of users to become commercially viable.

LESSONS LEARNED: Market adoption theory offers the best explanation for the very positive short-term results, and limited overall adoption; early adopters see the value, but the majority of stakeholders will only support solutions that address day to day requirements. In other words, there is insufficient demand for solutions that only get occasional use.

Meeting the Needs of 5-1-1 Services

Fortunately, there is a use case for MASAS capabilities that are needed every day and that can also support clients during emergencies and disasters, and that’s 5-1-​1 road information services.  Renfrew County’s Paramedic Chief Mike Nolan and Steven Boland, Renfrew County’s then Director of Public Works, helped Doug understand 5-1-1 municipal stakeholder information needs and how to address them.

Renfrew County’s paramedics travel every township, town, city, county, highway, private and forestry road throughout the County, with 19 separate Roads Departments. With a closest ambulance policy in Ontario, County paramedics must also respond in the six adjoining Counties/region around them. Twice in the last three years, they have had more than 100 roads flooded at one time. Detours of 60 km around lakes, rivers and mountains for culvert replacement are common. All of this geospatial information was being shared by email and fax (the same way that overwhelmed Ernie’s EOC).

Stephen took the time to define what was needed for county, town, township and city public works staff. And, he informed Doug of the many similar road information communications challenges to be addressed, e.g. conflicting projects, events, and permitted activity between departments, and municipal and highway roads departments.

In March 2017, Doug partnered with Dr. Simon Foo, CEO of Transnomis Solutions Inc. Simon is an intelligent transportation systems expert, and he has built comprehensive road information management and communications solutions for large municipalities and provincial agencies. He supported Doug’s vision of a simple, intuitive road information web service, that featured a public map (, push email notification, data exchange, and a common operating picture.

They called it Municipal511, and today it serves and connects 45% of Ontario municipalities. The digital road information is shared in real time with emergency responder applications, navigation companies, provincial agencies, etc. Municipal511 also serves as an exchange between in-house and third party road information management applications.

In 2018, Perth County’s emergency manager, Dave Colvin, received two national public safety awards for their Municipal511 implementation. The emergency management committee of the Canadian police, fire and paramedic Chiefs of Canada recognized “the combined efforts of police, fire, and paramedic services in preparing their agencies for any subsequent response to natural or human-caused disasters”.

LESSONS LEARNED: The key to solving common disaster communications challenges is to have the communications methods required during crises used every day. Mapping road obstructions for emergency responders, public works departments, truckers, etc. is proving to be the road to shared situational awareness during disasters.

About the Authors:

Doug Allport has invented, developed, managed and governed national and provincial public safety information exchanges, public alerting systems, associations, protocols, and policy – as an entrepreneur, volunteer, and government contractor. In 2017 Doug partnered with Transnomis Solutions to address road information management and communications challenges for municipal roads departments and emergency responders. The rapid adoption of their award winning Municipal511 service has led to the establishment of the Ontario Road Information Exchange (ORIE).

Ernie MacGillivray is a former provincial Director of Emergency Management, and Executive Director of Emergency Services. He has worked extensively on federal – provincial – territorial policy and technology initiatives, including the development of the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada, Canada’s National Public Alerting System, and Canada’s Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System.