Public Warning Systems
BY NORMA REVELER
© 2006 FrontLine Security (Vol 1, No 3)

Advances in the ability of scientists to predict severe weather disturbances and natural disasters will not protect the public if warnings don’t get out. That message was recently delivered by Dr. Ian Rutherford, executive director of the Canadian Meteor­ological and Oceano­graphic Society (CMOS), to Canada’s broadcast regulator. He recounted how newly acquired Doppler radars have doubled the technologically possible warning time for tornadoes since one touched down in Edmonton in 1987 when he was in charge of the Alberta city’s weather service. The ensuing inquiry into the disaster recommended the Doppler purchase. However, advances in predicting tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters are not being matched by similar improvements in the public warning system.

CRTC Hearing on All-Channel Alerts
“That is a serious problem, because very often many of these warnings have a very short fuse. One can predict the occurrence of a tornado at a given spot, but only with a lead time of perhaps half an hour using the best available technology. So if you don’t get the warning out quickly, it’s useless,” Dr. Rutherford told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). “Warnings that could save lives if they were delivered promptly are delivered too late or not at all. Lives and property are being lost as a result.”

Dr. Rutherford made these comments at a CRTC hearing in May on the question of establishing a national All-Channel Alert (ACA) service that would see warnings of weather disturbances, natural disasters and other emergencies, including possible terrorist attacks, appear on crawl messages along the bottom of television screens.

He and other members of the emergency planning community warned the CRTC that Canada’s warning system was far behind other industrialized countries.

A national ACA has not been mandated in Canada, and as a result, warnings are piecemeal – and radio and TV stations respond too slowly. In contrast, cable operators and broadcasters are required by the U.S. broadcast regulator, the Federal Communications Com­mission (FCC), to participate in the country’s Emergency Alerting System (EAS), and must distribute presidential alerts but not all state or local alerts. A review of the alerts by the FCC in 2004 resulted in a recommendation that U.S. satellite TV distributors also be required to participate in the EAS.

“All the work that emergency responders have done in recent years in promoting preparedness and educating the public will be severely hampered without the initiation of a communications network which will trigger the public’s response,” James Ferguson, coordinator of the Salvation Army’s emergency disaster ­services, told the CRTC. “As you are well aware, other countries in the world are far ahead of [Canada] in this regard.”

Possible Progress
Disagreements among broadcasters and the cable industry over technology and costs have resulted in little progress to date in implementing an ACA, which the federal government has been pushing since the late 1990s. The CRTC hearings on the matter could change that.

The most popular proposal supported by the emergency planning community is from Pelmorex, the company that operates the specialty TV channels: The Weather Network and MétéoMédia. Pelmorex received over 700 applications from municipalities, emergency preparation organizations and other agencies supporting its ACA. But the the plan favoured by these groups – requiring participation by the broadcast community and funding through cable TV subscribers – draws the most opposition from within the broadcasting industry.

Pelmorex proposes to expand the weather warning system it currently ­operates on its weather and specialty TV channels to include warnings of all types. It wants the CRTC to mandate cable TV companies and satellite TV distributors Bell ExpressVu and Star Choice to carry its ACA system, which would be funded by an increase of $0.08 on each person’s monthly cable TV or satellite TV bill.

Regulations an Impediment to Progress?
However, the broadcast community doesn’t want to be forced to carry the Pelmorex system or to charge their TV subscribers for it. It is the second time that the CRTC has considered Pelmorex’s plan for an ACA. In 2001, the broadcaster’s proposal was rejected on the grounds that there was too much dissension in the broadcast community and the fee was too high. In 2001, Pelmorex wanted $0.13 per TV subscriber per month.

Pelmorex submitted a revised plan to the CRTC in November 2005 that included a lower rate (8 cents) and new applications enabling the ACA system to work on digital TV distribution systems as well as analog ones. When Pelmorex reapplied, the regulator opened the process up to anyone interested in providing the service. That’s when the Canadian Broad­casting Corp.(CBC) and Bell ExpressVu jumped into the fray. Both the CBC and ExpressVu have plans for an ACA system, but only over their own broadcast distribution networks. They’d allow other TV distributors to opt in, but they don’t want the CRTC to require it.

Cable operators, and telecommunications companies that have begun to offer TV services over high-speed phone lines, such as Telus, MTS Allstream and SaskTel, do not want to be forced by the CRTC to carry Pelmorex’s ACA. Cable giant Rogers argued that it doesn’t need Pelmorex’s proposed centralized database that ­collects alerts and distributes them to cable headends for relay to customers. “Our headends are, for the most part, connected by fibre and we can easily distribute any alerts to our own headends without the use of the Pelmorex system,” Rogers’ vice-president, Pamela Dinsmore, noted in written submissions to the broadcast regulator.

Voluntary Systems Don’t Work
These sentiments, repeated by Rogers officials during the CRTC hearing, were denounced by members of the emergency planning community, most of whom also point out that a mandatory ACA is needed to be effective.

“Listening to the gentleman from Rogers, I got the impression that this is fast, easy and cheap if just someone would make it easy for him from a regulatory standpoint. But it’s not fast, easy or cheap. There is a requirement to expend capital on the front end in order to create the connectivity between messages and systems,” said Ernest MacGillivray, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization. He points out that the purely voluntary warning system that’s in place now hasn’t worked and probably never will. “As a matter of principle, those with the mandates – that is government and industry – and those with the means – and that is the owners of broadcast media – have an obligation to act, to warn the public at imminent risk by all means possible,” MacGillivray said. “Given our wealth as a nation, our advanced telecommunications and broadcast systems, it is reasonable to ask: ‘Why are we not doing so?’ We are not doing so because we do not require it.”

Response Gaps Need to be Closed
Julian Fantino, Ontario’s commissioner of Emergency Management, noted that alerting the public was so ­crucial in times of emergency that it shouldn’t be left up to cable TV operators and satellite TV distributors to opt-in. “The commission will know just how very vulnerable we are in today’s reality from potential threats from many sources, man-made, weather or, of course, natural circumstances, health issues and so forth, and the notion of leaving everything to emergency providers is very, very difficult indeed without the full awareness and involvement of the public in our collective efforts to keep everyone safe,” he said before the CRTC.

Quebec-based media company Quebecor Media doesn’t oppose the implementation of Pelmorex’s system, but it isn’t happy that the increased fee to subscribers would cost its Vidéotron cable subsidiary $1 million a year to implement with most of the cost of the ACA system servicing analog systems even though the cable operator is rapidly converting to digital technology. As a result, Pelmorex softened its call for mandatory carriage. It is prepared to go ahead with its ACA over the TV broadcast system if the CRTC mandates carriage only in digital, and makes analog carriage optional. Under this option, Pelmorex noted the cost would be lowered to 6 cents per TV subscriber per month. The trade-off, however, noted Pelmorex president and CEO, Pierre Morrissette, is that in the short-term fewer Canadians would have access to the alerts since not everyone is a digital TV subscriber.

Pelmorex noted that the rollout of the ACA system on a mandatory digital basis only would be in synch with the CRTC’s recently released digital TV migration ­policy. The CRTC has indicated that it expects the Canadian broadcasting system to have migrated entirely from analog to digital by the end of 2012. If its proposal gets the go-ahead, Pelmorex points out that even after approval, it will be close to a year before alerts could be launched on larger distribution systems, and nearer to the end of year-five before smaller distributors would be serviced. That timeframe corresponds to the commission’s estimate of when most TV distributors will approach full digitization.

But Canadian broadcasters have concerns of their own, and came out against all three ACA proposals. CanWest MediaWorks, CHUM Ltd., and ExpressVu’s sister company, CTV Inc. opposed having emergency alert messages inserted into their TV signals without their consent. They claim to be all “committed to participate in an emergency alert ­service developed by the government of Canada, in consultation with broadcasters and [cable and satellite TV distributors].” They want to work under Industry Canada’s CANALERT initiative rather than under either the Pelmorex, ExpressVu or CBC proposals. Alliance Atlantic Communi­ca­tions, which runs specialty channels such as Showcase and Home and Garden TV, and Astral Media, which operates The Movie Network and Musique Plus, made a similar argument. They told the CRTC that “the principle of signal control by a program undertaking is fundamental.” The two broadcasters also questioned the usefulness of running local or national alerts on specialty TV channels, which do not have 100% penetration.

Warnings aren’t “Property”
Those in emergency planning, however, don’t buy this line. “When I listen to comments from some of the other proponents that they object to carrying Pelmorex material on top of their broadcast, I think they are barking up the wrong tree,” said Dr. Rutherford. “These warnings are a public service. They are not the property of any one company whether it is a carrier or an originator. They belong to the public and they need to be carried to the public that needs to hear them.”

The alerts would be authorized and created by the appropriate organization, with Environment Canada, for example, in charge of issuing weather-related alerts that would be distributed to all TV stations in the affected areas of Canada.

The CRTC is currently examining all of the information presented during the May public hearing and a prior written comments phase. It is not expected to release its decision until late this year or even next year. It could give all three parties the go-ahead, one or none. But the big question is that if it does agree to any of the proposals: ‘Will the regulator make carriage of the ACA mandatory?’

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Norma Reveler is an Ottawa-based writer.
© FrontLine Security 2006

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