More and more, Canadian emergency response agencies are looking beyond communications operability to begin to address the need for communications interoperability. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that attaining interoperability is more of a people issue than a technology problem.

At times communications interoperability is hamstrung by the available technology, but more often the agencies involved lack the proper protocols, governance or knowledge of how to communicate with each other.

Thankfully, that is changing. A national partnership is putting the spotlight on advancing communications interoperability for the Canadian public safety sector through the creation of a national interoperability plan to benefit responders from coast to coast to coast.

The Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, or CITIG, and its many partners have been at the forefront of advancing the interoperability agenda. The entity brings together representatives from public safety, industry, academia, government and non-governmental organizations to collectively shape the future of Canadian public safety interoperability.

Launched in April 2007, the CITIG has evolved into a partnership between the Government of Canada’s Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC), the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada (EMSCC). Key federal partners such as Public Safety Canada, Industry Canada, the Canadian Council of Emergency Measures Organizations (CCEMO) and the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) are also supporting CITIG’s direction and efforts.

The affiliation with the CPRC provides a particularly valuable link to federal, and most notably defence, resources. CPRC is managed by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science, a joint endeavour between DRDC and Public Safety Canada to provide science and technology solutions to strengthen Canada’s ability to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from high-consequence public safety and security events. The CITIG’s work on interoperability is a natural fit.

Developing the plan
It’s no secret that first responders have long identified voice communications as the main constraint to their interoperability. Gaps remain in communications interoperability that limit the ability of responders (i.e., fire, police, ambulance, Coast Guard, utilities, etc.) to talk to one another and to communicate across jurisdictions during an emergency.

That was made clear during the very successful Canadian Voice Interoperability Workshop: A CITIG National Forum that took place in Ottawa in March 2008. The workshop marked the culmination of CITIG’s first year, and it helped solidify the business case for moving forward with a more cooperative approach to improved public safety provider interoperability. It also laid the groundwork for the start of a national interoperability plan.

In late 2008, CITIG started collaborating with Public Safety Canada to facilitate the development of the Canadian Communications Interoperability Plan (CCIP). A group of 20 or so responders from across the country were brought together to draft the initial plan during a second national workshop in Toronto.

The multi-stakeholder partnership that developed the draft CCIP is truly ground breaking. Rarely has such a diverse group been brought together for such an important issue. The plan is viewed as a foundation piece that will go a long way toward ensuring a more coordinated approach to interoperability issues municipally, provincially, nationally and, at times, internationally as cross-border situations arise.

The plan is meant to increase the ability of emergency response providers and relevant government officials to communicate during emergencies and major events (e.g., natural disasters, acts of terrorism, day-to-day operations) and to ensure, accelerate and attain interoperable emergency communications nationwide, and across borders.

The ultimate goal of the CCIP is to establish a seamless and coordinated approach to wireless voice and data systems across municipal, provincial and federal public safety jurisdictions to enhance mission requirements and maximize information sharing.

Most recently, at the third national workshop in November 2009 in Halifax, the CCIP working group reconvened to make further improvements to the plan and revise action items. While the draft CCIP document has yet to be formally presented to provincial officials for their review and approval, it has been extensively shared, and in fact was developed by key municipal, regional, provincial and national champions. Public Safety and CITIG have been working with the CCEMO and SOREM to seek their acceptance to assume responsibility for the governance aspect of the CCIP. Ongoing and expanded support from all levels of government will be paramount in achieving sustainability for the CCIP.

Without a doubt, the situation is dramatically improving in communities across Canada and with our U.S. partners along the border. However, gaps remain when it comes to Arctic and marine interoperability between federal and local first responders. At a recently held exercise on the challenges of Arctic communications, delegates learned firsthand about the unique issues that responders face when managing events “north of 60.”

While the proceedings of the event have not yet been published, one outcome that was clear was the need for an Arctic communications interoperability plan along the lines of the CCIP.

Determining priorities
The CCIP working group has done much of the legwork in identifying Canadian priorities for advancing public safety communications interoperability. One of the main lessons learned involves focusing less on technology. Contrary to the November 2009 Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons: Chapter 7, Emergency Management – Public Safety Canada, the emphasis should be on people.

The report examines how Public Safety Canada carries out its responsibilities in fulfilling its mandate and raises a number of issues, including the department’s work involving public safety provider communications interoperability. Section 7.66 of the report points out that key interoperability gaps remain for voice communications, limiting the ability of various fire, police, and ambulance services to work together in an emergency and that “the Department has directed little or no funding toward standardizing equipment.”

While standardizing equipment is a valid and needed approach to ensuring interoperability, CITIG and its partners strongly advocate that the initial emphasis should be on governance and developing standard operating procedures to advance communications interoperability. Work on the CCIP and related work to cascade that planning approach to the provincial, regional, municipal levels will make a significant impact.

With that philosophy in mind, CITIG works to be a proactive mechanism for exchanging unbiased information and knowledge amongst stakeholders across all levels of government on public safety communications interoperability (i.e., the five aspects – governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercise, and usage – as per SAFECOM model, a key framework for enhancing communications interoperability widely adopted in Canada).

In addition to holding national workshops, the CITIG continues its information-sharing mission at the regional level. To date, there have been 11 regional CITIG forums held in Toronto, St. John’s, Calgary, Edmonton, two in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Moncton, Montreal, Winnipeg and Whitehorse. The 12th regional forum occurs on February 23 in Guelph, Ontario.

Moving forward
The first few years of CITIG’s existence focused primarily on voice interoperability. During 2009 the focus was expanded to include all aspects of interoperability – issues such as situational awareness, common operating pictures, resource (blue force) tracking, geographical information systems, data interoperability and common alerting.

The reaction to date has been very positive. That trend will continue, and two priorities for 2010 include a greater focus on marine interoperability, and the need to facilitate an interoperability strategic plan for Canada’s north. While discussions are preliminary, CITIG is becoming far more active in these areas and looks forward to working closely with these communities in the months and years to come.

Looking ahead, the CITIG will continue to help inform and mobilize Canadian first responders on a wide array of interoperability issues – its part of a collaborative effort to help improve public safety provider interoperability in Canada. Moreover, as we continue to work on the CCIP, Canadian responders will be better positioned to overcome many of the communications hurdles that present themselves while protecting Canadians. No doubt, any successes will be a major point of discussion during the fourth Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop, scheduled for December 5-8, 2010 in Victoria, British Columbia.).

Lance Valcour is a recently retired Inspector from the Ottawa Police Service currently working with the Canadian Police Research Centre leading the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group. In addition to his long-time participation as a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Informatics Committee and the International Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Information Management Section, he has compiled over 33 years experience working in operational roles and has led many operational and technology-related projects both in the public and private sectors.

For more information on CITIG’s efforts, see its page on the CPRC website ( or by emailing Registration information for the fourth workshop is available at