Supporting emergency management officials during the Fort McMurray wildfire response

May 2, 2017

In May 2016, a wildfire began ravaging Fort McMurray and surrounding areas, leading to the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents. As first responders battled the blaze and emergency management officials worked tirelessly to coordinate efforts, several organizations, including Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), worked behind the scene to provide advice and support.

Situational Awareness is Key

Situational awareness (SA) – knowing what is happening on the ground – is key to coordinating emergency efforts and making informed decisions.

“This fire forced the largest mass evacuation in Alberta history – and one of the largest in Canadian history. Many agencies were involved and a key challenge was concise communication of SA, as information changed hour-by-hour and often, minute-by-minute,” said Kevin Wowk, Emergency Management Officer at Alberta Health Services (AEMA).

”We have made significant investments to enhance SA capabilities,” said Dr. Mark Williamson, Director General, DRDC CSS. “Over the years, we have developed expertise in social media use during emergencies and supported the development of tools for information sharing through map-based applications. During the Fort McMurray fires, we drew on this to provide guidance and support, and connect our network of experts with emergency management officials on site.”

Information Sharing to Support Planning, Coordination and Decision-Making

Technological capabilities such as the national Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS) and the Operations Centre Information Portal (OCIP), developed over the years through the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) and pre-cursor programs, played an important role in supporting agencies involved in responding to the wildfire.

“MASAS allowed us to share locations of fires, road closures, hazards or other safety information, safe routes, command posts, staging areas and a host of other information that could be viewed in real-time in a concise, graphical format. We attached pictures, documents or links to more information to these graphical entries when required. Users could also view real-time weather data including wind direction – which was a critical safety concern during this incident,” said Wowk. “With personnel being deployed from across the province, being able to do all of this through MASAS made the organization of all the information coming in much easier, and allowed better coordination.”

“Emergency response happens at the local level, however it’s important that federal departments monitor the situation and coordinate requests for assistance,” said David Conabree, Acting Director General, Government Operations Centre (GOC) at Public Safety Canada (PS).

The GOC led the response coordination on behalf of the federal government. The Operations Centre Interconnectivity Portal, a system developed through a PS-led CSSP-funded project, was instrumental in bringing together key federal departments/agencies to assess the risks that the wildfire posed to the municipality of Wood Buffalo residents and its surrounding critical infrastructure, and ensured federal efforts were coordinated to support the Province of Alberta.

Predicting smoke patterns

As the wildfire grew, smoke exposure became a major concern. BlueSky Canada is a smoke forecasting system that tracks information on fires to create accurate and useful smoke predictions.

In 2013, BlueSky Canada received support from the CSSP to expand smoke forecasts to cover most of Canada. These forecasts were particularly useful during the Fort McMurray wildfire, allowing emergency management officials to stay informed about the smoke patterns and take precautionary action as necessary.

"We had significantly higher unique visitors and forecast page views to the BlueSky Canada website during the fire than any time in our history," said Roland Schigas, BlueSky Canada development and operations, University of British Columbia. "We were also contacted directly by several energy companies with facilities near Fort McMurray, who requested help forecasting smoke concentrations in order to ensure health and safety of their employees."

Social media and digital volunteers

As we’ve seen in recent years, social media has become a major source of information during disasters. The hashtags #ymm, #fortmac, and #fortmacfire trended on Twitter with shocking imagery shared all over the internet. The large volume of online content created a challenge for emergency management officials who needed to filter through what was important and what was rumour or speculation.

DRDC CSS assisted the AEMA in activating Canada’s Virtual Operations Support Team (CanVOST), a volunteer organization consisting of emergency-related professionals who provide social media monitoring services and reports for emergency agencies during crises. DRDC CSS had worked with CanVOST during the third annual Canada-United States Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE III), where they developed a process for activating CanVOST’s services.

Members of groups like CanVOST are known as digital volunteers, a concept that has been thoroughly explored through DRDC-led projects. One of these projects aimed to identify social media best practices for improved cooperation between official responders, digital volunteers and the public. The practical applications of this capability were tested during the third and fourth annual CAUSE experiments and proved to be a valuable resource. These combined efforts have helped DRDC CSS create a large database of information and resources on the subject, which has gained national recognition.

“The fact that we were contacted by AEMA during a period of extreme operational intensity and profound risk reflects highly on the respect that our program has earned,” said Colin Murray, then Director of Knowledge & Technology: Community Safety, DRDC CSS. “This enables DRDC CSS to deliver trusted advice and real-world impact. We feel privileged to provide this level of support.”

DRDC CSS also helped connect another digital volunteer team called YMMHelps with Dataminr, a top tier social media analytics tool that filters, sorts, and analyses relevant content on various feeds in real-time. The team emerged in the early days of the disaster to provide support by monitoring Twitter and Facebook resources to organize assistance and accommodations for Fort McMurray evacuees.

“We were able to utilize this information to add links to a site for people looking for support, said Elizabeth Myers, a digital volunteer. It was an amazing experience to use technology to help many people right from our office and hundreds of miles away from the fire.” 

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