Safety Warnings a Phone Call Away

Access to all land-line numbers gives city ability to issue neighbourhood-specific automated alerts 

By Neco Cockburn, Ottawa Citizen July 31, 2011  

Ottawa residents will soon be warned with a phone call if there’s a chemical spill, a boil-water advisory or a toxic fire in their neighbourhood.

This fall, the city is to have access to listed and unlisted land-line numbers and addresses contained in a Bell database, enabling it to send automated
messages about threats or emergencies in a particular area.

“It’s going to be a very valuable tool for us to be able to quickly tell residents that are specifically impacted by imminent or occurring danger,” said
John Ash, the city’s chief of security and emergency management. The service can also provide people with safety instructions, he said.

Cities across the country have explored implementing such services after a 2007 decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission allowed emergency authorities to access phone company databases.

Gatineau has tested a phone notification system using 411 database information for the past couple of years, but is working toward using listed and unlisted information kept by a phone company, said spokesman Alain d’Entremont.

The City of Ottawa currently spreads news of health and safety threats through resources such as its website and 311 service, along with media advisories and social media such as Twitter, but there are restrictions on the number of people that can be reached using such methods.

With access to the Bell database, staff can direct notifications to an area that falls under an alert such as a boil-water advisory, chemical spill, or
fire that causes toxic smoke, such as the major Beechwood Avenue blaze in March that had officials warning New Edinburgh residents to stay indoors with their doors and windows closed.

A couple of years ago, the city bought an emergency notification system that it uses internally, but it can be programmed to send recorded messages to the community for “citizen notification,” Ash said.

The system has speech-to-text capabilities, can be made accessible for people with various disabilities and can ask up to eight questions, such as whether the resident understands the message or requires further assistance, he said.

“We could generate a report and we’d be able to identify which homes we did not get a response from, or which homes are requesting further information,” Ash said, noting that staff could then use that information to better manage time and resources during an emergency.

He said Ottawa was the first city to approach Bell for the information.

Each province has a telephone company that maintains a central database of all land-line numbers for 911 purposes. In Ontario, that company is Bell, which has an enhanced 911 service, or E-911, that automatically provides emergency call-takers with information such as the address of the originating call.

In June 2004, a group of municipalities and emergency management authorities asked to be given access to E-911 database information so that community alerts could be provided by phone.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Privacy Commissioner of Canada each supported the principle of enhanced community notification, but raised some privacy concerns.

The privacy commissioner supported the public safety idea behind the notification and indicated that “the service need not be contrary to federal privacy
legislation, assuming that safeguards were established,” the documents say.

The CRTC decided that the service is in the public interest, but should be limited to certain circumstances, with appropriate safeguards and requirements.
In an attempt to limit privacy concerns, addresses and phone numbers – no names – are all that could be released to emergency authorities, the CRTC ruled.

The commission said there should be limits on the number of people who could access the information, and the data should be used only in response to the specific incident and deleted or destroyed once people have been notified.

It also decided that phone subscribers wouldn’t be able to opt out. (There is no similar system for cellphone users.)

Accessing the data will cost the city about $1,000 per year, Ash said. The city is to test the integration of the data in its system and roll out a communication program to residents before the service begins, he said.

Two administrators will be the only people on the city’s side to access the data, Ash said, adding that there’s to be strong encryption, password protection and ways of seeing who has accessed the information.

Staff will use their judgment to determine when alerts are to be sent, Ash said.

“We certainly don’t want to use the notification system or the E-911 database for events that it’s not required,” he said. “When someone receives this message, we want them to clearly understand it’s of significance, it’s important, and they need to listen to the message and listen to the instructions.”

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