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Unlocking Interoperability: How Canada’s public safety agencies can work better together

November 6, 2023 
By Elena De Luigi



Interoperability between Canada’s public safety agencies has long been a challenge. It is a topic of discussion in many emergency management circles.

One such circle was InterOp Canada, a virtual event that focused on enhancing interoperability between agencies. The event offered a platform for discussing key issues and exploring potential solutions for interoperability and incident response among police, fire, EMS and emergency management.

InterOp Canada was sponsored by Axon, and hosted and presented by Fire Fighting in Canada, Avert and Blue Line media brands.

The keynote presentation, which featured retired inspector Lance Valcour and emergency management leader Pascal Rodier, looked at Canada’s interoperability strategy and action plan, which were published in the early 2010s, and identified ways to enhance governance, planning, technology, training and exercises to promote interoperable voice and data communications. Both speakers helped lead the creation of these documents through their work with the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group.

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“You can have the best radio system in the world, but if you don’t have the correct policies of when to turn it on and when they have common channels, and you exercise that and have good, solid governance, you will not be interoperable,” Valcour said.

One way to do that is to follow the Canadian Communications Interoperability Continuum, which focuses on five areas: governance, standard operating procedures (SOPs), technology, training and exercises, and usage. True national interoperability would see integrated SOPs, two-way standards-based sharing of voice and data, national and provincial training exercises, and daily use. The end goal would be for all emergency responders to communicate as needed and as authorized across all disciplines and between all levels, on demand.

One of the challenges with interoperability in this country is getting everyone on board. Rodier noted that one of the biggest hurdles over the last few years has been the lack of willingness to change and the fact that Canada’s public safety agencies still operate in silos, which can prevent people from implementing interoperability in their communities. While funding is important, without vision and leadership, interoperability cannot happen.

“The technology is there … we have to improve the people,” Rodier said.

“Interoperability is about the people … Yes, we need that voice capability. Yes, we need to get to a better place where we’re using broadband and sharing data. But we really need to change the culture. We need those champions. We need those people, those leaders to be able to walk away from today and start to make that change,” he said

During the first panel discussion, the speakers discussed the challenges and opportunities of achieving interoperability in their agencies. One such challenge, is the lack of common language and nomenclature. Each agency speaks its own dialect of emergency response, and one cannot effectively communicate with the other.

In England, the 2005 bombing in London was one of the main reasons why the government stepped in and said the public safety agencies need to work together. Chatham-Kent Fire Chief Chris Case, who is originally from England, said his home country was shamed into becoming interoperable following a public inquiry that suggested civilians died due to the city’s public agencies not working together. When Case left England to come to Canada in 2016, the city had already become fully interoperable.

Here in Canada, another barrier that stands in the way of interoperability becoming a reality is the lack of national standards. The panellists agreed that a key part of ensuring that all agencies are communicating effectively in an emergency is having a national standard – including national training and education – which would provide a clear structure and performance expectations for first responders to work efficiently.

On Canada’s east coast, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are further ahead in the interoperability arena. Those four provinces have signed on to a trunked mobile radio system. Rodier said it is likely the first multi-jurisdictional public safety radio system in North America.

The solution to implementing interoperability at the national level lies in top-down planning driven by bottom-up experiences, said Chief Case. “If we have utopia, we’re not bringing chaos to chaos. If we can show up with some form of order to apply to chaos, then we may have a chance of getting this done in enough time to save enough people.”

Jay Walker, Provincial Manager of Emergency Preparedness Special Operations for Nova Scotia EHS, said interoperability is often discussed in the boardroom, but not often translated to the front line. The plans would have to translate into practice. “The strength of our leadership and our successes are measured by the ability of our front line to really implement interoperability and set them up for success,” he said.

Implementing common language and radio channels to allow for better communication, coupled with a national-level digital tracking software, data repository and a server are some of the suggestions the panellists had to help move Canada in the direction of being interoperable.

Belleville Police Chief Mike Callaghan said agencies need to develop a comprehensive threat vulnerability assessment. “It doesn’t matter what type of event that you go into. We have to look at this from an all-hazards approach, and at the end of the day, it’s business continuity,” he said.

From an interoperability perspective, heat emergencies can cover a vast geographic area and involve possibilities for power or cell phone tower outages, cooling station requirements, special care for vulnerable persons and the homeless community, and ultimately have the potential to be a mass casualty event. With the growing threat of heat emergencies in Canada, multi-agency response has evolved over the years.

RCMP Supt. Peter Tsui, E Division Intelligence Officer, emphasized the importance of community and stakeholder engagement, and building relationships with other public safety agencies to disseminate information effectively to the public. “We don’t hold back information. There are no state secrets here. We’re out there to save lives at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s public safety, and our job is to make sure to get information into the hands of people so that they can do the same thing.”

Tsui’s comments echo what Valcour noted in the keynote presentation, that Next Generation 911 is critical to joint emergency response and getting the right information to the right people. Instead of gate-keeping information from other agencies, the idea would be to flip the paradigm to share all the information with everyone, including the public, unless the reason for not sharing it is based on privacy or security.

When it comes to disseminating information between agencies and within organizations, Sam Greif, Deputy City Manager in Plano, Texas, and the city’s former fire chief, said his community prepares an incident action plan that gets circulated to every public safety agency for review.

His community takes a multi-pronged approach when responding to a heat emergency, including activating the emergency operations centre, deploying extra resources, and providing cooling facilities.

“Every time you’re going to learn something different … What concerns me is not where we are right now, it’s where are we headed? What’s the next bad thing? If this happens, what are we going to do?”


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