Award-Winning Municipal 511 System to Facilitate Emergency Response

In 2017, recognizing the need for prompt responses from emergency services to all manner of events, including major disasters, the Ontario municipalities of North Perth, Perth East, Perth South, West Perth, and St. Mary’s collectively created a 511 system that has substantially improved situation awareness and emergency services response times in the area. The previous system was far from streamlined, with faxes, phone calls, emails, and social media updates all being used separately in an attempt to get a clear picture of road conditions. The new system consolidates all manner of communication into a single website that is updated in real time and provides a quick and simple understanding of any potential routing issues. This has proved useful for emergency responders in at least two flooding events so far.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

This project is not designed for handling any one type of climate impact but rather to improve the effectiveness of emergency response across all possible scenarios. Prior to this redevelopment, the system was one in which all manner of communication methods were utilized: phone, email, fax, social media, and more; it was largely recognized as being an inefficient system with too much information that was not streamlined in an easily-understood format. One particular concern in the area is flooding, with Perth Country experiencing flooding events in 2018 which gave the system its first real test in a wide-scale disaster situation. Flooding can hinder emergency services response time by inundating or washing out roads or even bridges, making them unusable and therefore causing responders to make last-minute course changes that can substantially increase response times. Ice storms are also an issue of concern, as the exemplified by the above-noted 2018 flooding events; the area was also under the threat of an ice storm occurring concurrently with the flooding, which would have only exacerbated the issue. Ice storms can affect emergency response times by downing trees and power lines, creating unsafe driving conditions and accidents, causing or exacerbating floods, and more. The municipal 511 system updates all known information regarding road conditions so that emergency responders can avoid these hazards as necessary.

Identifying Actions

The program that forms the backbone of Municipal 511 was initially created by the Federal Government but was not implemented on a wide scale despite being tested during the flooding in 2017 of Eastern Ontario and Quebec. The emergency management department saw that the existing system was not operating at the level that it needed to and began looking for alternatives. The county contacted Transnomis Solutions, a Canadian technology company that specializes in road information and communications solutions, in order to contract out the project, and Perth County was in turn approached by the Federal Government to use the newly-developed system as a pilot project for their municipalities. One important component of the planning and execution phase is that, despite working with both a private contractor and the Federal Government, Perth County had significant input throughout the process, with the County’s Emergency Coordinator taking the lead on the project to ensure a rapid implementation for all municipalities involved.

Implementation

The program lead to the development of an interactive, publicly-accessible website that updates road conditions in real time. The information is presented in multiple layers. For example, one layer of the map shows road closures and delays as indicated by the participating municipalities while another layer of the map displays crowdsourced road condition data submitted by local users to the mapping and travel app Waze. Other sources of information that are incorporated into the Municipal 511 website include weather radars, provincial road reports, and provincial cameras. While the map itself is publicly-accessible, there are layers of information that remain only available to emergency services workers. One such example is the addresses of homes that have obtained a permit for open burns (where an individual uses a large outdoor fire to rid themselves of waste material such as paper, trees, brush, leaves, grass, and other debris); these burns are responsible for many unnecessary responses from fire departments, as neighbours may mistakenly report these believing that they are dangerous and uncontrolled fires. Other features of the system include the ability to send emails and faxes directly though the 511 system. It is also a provider of information to both Waze and Google Maps, providing more accurate real-time updates to private users, improving the efficiency of traffic flow in the region. On release, training time was allocated to ensure that users were able to use the system as intended, and the website continues to provide access to training videos.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The new is regarded as not only being more streamlined and efficient, but also incredibly cost-effective. Due to Perth County being a participant in the system as pilot case, it has been made available to the county at a reduced price. A respondent from the Perth County Emergency Management Department noted that the system offered a superior cost-to-benefit ratio when compared to similar programs available. The Municipal 511 system was put to the test not long after its implementation when, in 2018 Perth County was struck by flooding. By all accounts, the system performed well and provided up-to-date road condition information that allowed emergency responders to make better and more informed decisions in a shorter timeframe, improving response efforts. Outside of a disaster scenario, the system is also credited with saving substantial amounts of time, money, and effort by providing a map of open burn permits and allowing responders to filter out calls regarding fires at the permitted addresses. One municipality reported a 70% time saving due to the system, improving efficiency and ensuring that resources remained available for real fires. In 2018, the system won the Motorola Award for Excellence in Emergency Preparedness