Mapping an emergency in the Central Okanagan
At the height of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park forest fire that roared through Kelowna’s southern residential areas with a destructive force, firefighter
Brian Moore sat in the emergency operations centre sorting through piles of paper maps thinking there had to be a better way.
Moore, then the assistant to the deputy emergency co-ordinator for the region, could hear the three map plotters running, as they did 24-hours a day during the wildfire, spitting out new versions of maps containing the most up-to-date information firefighters and other emergency personnel needed to fight the flames.
At the time, Moore, a Canadian Navy veteran well versed in warfare logistics, thought if only there was a way to get all the information onto one map and have it constantly update.
That would show emergency responders the big picture and allow them to tailor their response accordingly.
“It was a battle and we needed the information,” says Moore, looking back at that critical time in the Central Okanagan’s history.
He says while there were operational guidelines in place, they only went so far. The fire they were facing was not something the city’s fire department had ever seen or envisioned— a forest fire that entered the city.
“I remember turning the page (of the guideline book) and there was nothing. That was the biggest sinking feeling I had the whole time. We were on our own.”
The fire, fought not only by the city’s fire department but with the assistance of firefighters and equipment from across B.C. and Canada, as well as the Canadian Armed Forces and provincial forest firefighting crews, was finally wrestled under control but not before it cut a swath of devastation through part of the Mission area of the city resulting in the loss of 235 homes and most of the historic Kettle Valley Rail trestles to the east in Myra Canyon.
But for Moore, the question of how to find a better way to provide information to deal with such a catastrophe did not go away. Now, 11 years later, Moore has helped craft an answer.
Teaming up with a software developer out of North Vancouver and using a mapping system already put in place by the federal government, the Multi-Agency Situational Awarness System (MASAS) has been created.
The system gathers information from a wide variety of sources and includes it, in real time, on a map available over the Internet.
Including information such as topographical data, fire, flood and earthquake reports, closed roads, planned events, utility issues and a host of other data, it paints a clearer picture of what is happening around a given emergency situation.
According to Moore, now dispatch supervisor at the Kelowna Fire Department and deputy emergency plan co-ordinator, the information and ability to pull it up immediately and share it in real time is critical to an emergency response. It was a lesson learned from 2003, when a then peace-time record evacuation of 32,000 people had to be undertaken, and done quickly.
“The Kelowna wildfire was the largest disaster we had ever had to deal with,” says Moore.
Eleven years ago, there was no way to share critical information among the firefighters, paramedics, pilots, police and Canadian Armed Forces personnel in a quick and effective manner. But MASAS changes that.
The map system, originally created by the federal government, now includes software developed by FDM Software of North Vancouver that captures data that is already being uploaded by various agencies, companies and government departments to their own systems and plots it on the central map. The information is updated every few minutes.
Kelowna, thanks to Moore’s involvement, is the first municipal fire department to have its information included, adding to the long list of agencies across Canada that already provide information.
MASAS is also connected to an American version of the system so information can be shared across the border.
Emergency situations, like fires or floods, don’t know borders so it will help to know what is happening in a nearby jurisdiction, says Moore.
Given that more than 75 per cent of fire departments in B.C. alone already use FDM software in their operations, it is expected that many more fire departments will sign on to be part of the Canadian mapping system.
There is currently no cost to being part of MASAS, and the information is already being uploaded to local databases anyway, so there is little reason not to join, argues Moore.
Recently, he was successful in getting the City of Kelowna to allow its road closure information to become part of the system, information that will help city fire crews when they respond to calls locally.
The information was already available to city fire crews, he says, but now it will be plotted on maps that can be called up in the cab of a fire truck on a computer screen on the way to a fire.
Moore is also working with utility companies, such as FortisBC, to get its information included in the system.
Given that the information is already public and available elsewhere on the web, he says there’s really no reason not to include it.
The MASAS system, which has been in use since 2011 through an operational pilot program funded by the federal government, allows emergency managers and responders across the country to share situational information using their own application or basic web-based tools, according to Ed Colin of FDM.
And the new system will save time.
“Our challenge before the FDM-MASAS system was implemented was the time it took to relay real-time information to other first-responders and stakeholders in an emergency,” says Moore.
“It typically took 15 to 90 minutes to activate the regional emergency operations centre and understand the magnitude of an incident.”
Now, he says, all emergency managers have to do is “turn on the lights and fire up MASAS.”
“Everyone now knows what everyone else is doing. It’s making a tremendous difference in our planning, response and recovery for planned and emergency incidents of all sizes,” he says.
In any emergency, communication is critical.
The regional district’s Bruce Smith has seen that first-hand.
He was front and centre as the communications co-ordinator in 2003 and has had to act in the same role in more recent emergencies such as the Trepanier Fire and the Glenrosa fire.
He remembers the stacks of paper maps that had to be produced 11 years ago in the EOC and the difficulty keeping on top of the all the information that was needed.
“Information can change quickly and you have to stay on top of it. In 2003 we could only be as good as our ability to get information out.”
While he admits technology and Internet advancements have changed the landscape dramatically in the years since the Kelowna wildfire, when it comes to communication, the job remains the same—get complete and accurate information out as quickly as possible to all the people who need it. And that is where the MASAS system will help, say the experts.
Moore gives an example of where it would have assisted during the Terrace Mountain fire, which ignited during the Glenrosa fire in 2011.
He said firefighting resources were sent to one location after fire was spotted on a hillside in the distance.
But if topographical information had been available right away, it would have shown the flames had a long way to go before reaching that spot because there was a valley on the other side of the mountain from where the firefighters were waiting.
“Those resources could have been used elsewhere rather than waiting there,” he says.
While the MASAS system is not the last word in information mapping advancements, it will help improve how emergency situations are tackled.
And Moore’s nagging question from 2003 can be pointed to as a prime reason it exists today.
“Brian Moore was absolutely driven to find a better way to share information during an emergency, and we at FDM were more than happy to do our part,” says Colin.
“Brian and the Kelowna Fire Department deserve a big hand for obtaining funding for this project and spreading the word to the public safety community about the benefits of becoming part of this initiative.”