U.S.-Canada Demonstrate Communications Interoperability Among First Responders

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office hosted CAUSE V emergency operations center and participated in CAUSE V (November 2017, Bellingham, Washington, USA).
Photo Credit: Whatcom County Sheriff’s office.

When disaster strikes, we rush to our phones to call friends and family near the affected area to ensure they are safe, or we take to social media for the same purpose. Thousands of people trying to communicate through the same network at the same time in the same area results in the network becoming congested, sometimes failing, leaving people frustrated and worried. Imagine this communication failure happening to first responders when they are trying to respond to a disaster. Now imagine the disaster is affecting an international border where the network coverage switches from one domestic carrier to another or completely drops. This is a serious problem first responders should not have to deal with – especially in a disaster when seamless communications are a must.

In mid-November, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) tested and demonstrated that seamless communication is possible between first responders from both sides of the border during a major emergency.

The fifth Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE) was held on the border of Bellingham, Washington, and Abbotsford, British Columbia. The scenario addressed responding to a volcanic crater collapse followed by a destructive mud flow, and it involved participants from local first responder agencies from Whatcom County in Washington state, the city of Abbotsford, city of Langley and the township of Langley in British Columbia; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; S&T, and Canada Border Services Agency.

The U.S. Geological Survey developed the CAUSE V scenario based on the history of Mount Baker, an active volcano in the exercise area. Throughout the exercise, Canadian and U.S. first responders crossed the border multiple times to respond to each other’s calls for assistance. All of the international communication activities were coordinated and facilitated by a public safety broadband network (PSBN), which enabled special features for first responders. For example, when the network became congested due to heavy traffic during an emergency, PSBN gave first responders priority on the network. Also, when too many public safety users are on the network, some of the users could be moved to another network (Canadian or American) without anyone even noticing the switch.

CBP official briefs the Whatcom County emergency operation center on the daily activities of CBP officers participating in CAUSE V.
Photo Credit: DHS S&T.

“CAUSE V broke down barriers to interoperability by demonstrating that a national network, much like America’s FirstNET, can join forces with a similar network in Canada and behave like one network from a public safety user perspective. In addition, this cross border communications interoperability highlighted potential harmonization with the U.S. system,” said Glen Weimer, the Project Manager for DND CSS said.

According to Denis Gusty, DHS S&T Project Manager, the experiment also added the human factor to technology by mobilizing digital volunteers.

“One of the challenges in today’s virtual social environment is the overwhelming amount of event related information shared by the public via social media – some of which can be inaccurate. First responders do not have the resources or the time to sort through all of the social media information to determine which information is relevant,” Gusty said.

Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Snider of City of Abbotsford Fire and Rescue (Canada), responding to a call for assistance from the other side of the border during CAUSE V (November 2017, Abbotsford, Canada).
Photo Credit: DHS S&T.

Digital volunteers in Langley and Whatcom County gathered information from simulated social media sites and shared their findings with exercise decision makers to demonstrate how social media can inform response efforts.

As the fifth experiment in its series, CAUSE V, which began in 2011, was a successful completion to the experiment series. The U.S.-Canada collaboration demonstrated the feasibility of seamless communication and cooperation of the two countries when their citizens face a shared risk. S&T and DRDC CSS will analyze the CAUSE results, examine ways to continue and bring the experiment series’ successes into real-world use to serve the public safety community. The after action report will be released early in 2018.

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