Transport Canada Crisis Center

In 1994 computerActive won a large RFP to create the National Crisis Center run by Transport Canada. Anything that moved across interprovincial boundaries was controlled and legislated by Transport Canada. That includes air, water and land. Since most disasters involve transportation, Transport Canada was invovlde in almost all crisis and natural disaster’s. Therefore it was given the manudate to create a high tech crisis center which could tap all forms of media, TV, Radio, phones, main frame databases, PC, you name it, and incorproate all that information into an ongoing view of what was happening.

Ahead of Emergency Measures Canada, more stable than the PC based Narional Defence system at that time, this NeXTstep based system was the “go to” place for the Canadian federal government. We know, computerActive was the prime contractor, programmers and system integrators. Below are two articles we caused to be written and provided to various magazines.

27 April 1994

The Security and Emergency Planning Group of Transport Canada has been mandated to provide a modern command, control and communications facility. This crisis center would provide for the collection of information and the direction of Transport activities from one central location during any transport related emergencies that affect Canadians.

In order to fulfill this mandate computerActive Inc. was contracted to create the Transport Canada Crisis Center (TCCC) information handling system. This operational multi-media communication centre was created using the NeXTSTEP operating system as the Unix software platform of choice. With expertise in Unix and over three years experience integrating NeXTSTEP systems, computerActive Inc. employed a wide variety of technologies to accommodate the multitasking, multimedia content of the project.

The project required the use of such innovative technologies as a world wide mapping system, the collection and dissemination of Voice/ Video information as well as integrating voice mail, audio-visual sources, and telephone to a single headset, directly connected to the NeXTSTEP platform.

A video network allows viewing of any workstation's screen, (including live video in a window) on any other workstation, or projection on a wall of large screen projectors. The video network is separate from the data network to ensure data network performance.

Using network wide transparent file management tools, issues of distribution and information sharing were addressed. Through these tools TCCC staff automatically initiate procedures, emergency contact lists and other applications for specific types of emergencies. The capability of sending multi-media email through the Internet was also provided.

Other operating systems such as Apple Macintosh, DOS, Mainframe Connectivity and Video/Cable Television Interface are seamlessly connected. This automates certain job activities enabling the user to devote attention to the real Crisis Center issues.

Depending on the type of crisis, different teams of experts are called upon. Training was a big issue. With NeXTSTEP's highly intuitive Graphical User Interface (GUI) and implementing a high percentage of activity behind the scene, the average user was up to speed within days of implementation.

The Transport Canada Crisis Center collects, processes and communicates decisions and information through a facility that is both innovative and state of the art.

Canadians can be proud of what both Transport Canada and computerActive have accomplished with the successful creation of this centre. This is an exciting Canadian project that is gaining interest and being monitored Worldwide.

(The following article appeared in: NEXT IN LINE Magazine, Fall 1995 and HUM Magazine, January 1995.)

By Brad Evenson

OTTAWA, The first sign of the massive earthquake on Canada's west coast was a void. Silence. All connections lost. No telephone, video or audio signals. The crisis center falls silent. "What's going on in Vancouver?" mutters a desk officer. The next sign comes over a radio speaker, patched from the cockpit of an airliner. "Jesus, the Lion's Gate bridge is shaking like a leaf. There's a major quake down there!"

Then the flood begins. Radio signals and television images flash onto screens. Coast guard captains, government agents, news channels, seismic reports and satellite pictures come streaming onto the computer screens lined in three banks in Transport Canada crisis center in Ottawa, thousands of miles away. Experts come in, donning headsets. Within minutes, situation reports complete with scaled maps of the epicentre, death toll and forecasts are on their way to senior officials by e-mail and fax. Project manager Mike Lemay looks on, smiling. It all works.

The disaster simulation was the first major test for the crisis centre, built for the Canadian government department Transport Canada using the NEXTSTEP operating system. A sprawling bureaucracy, Transport Canada is responsible for all aspects of travel in the world's largest country. Everything from air traffic control to freeways, railways, truck routes and even iceberg surveillance in shipping lanes falls under its mandate.

Lemay's project was to create and equip a central command control and communications facility to deal with any crisis, including such rare events as hijackings, satellite re-entry,bomb threats and natural disasters. And, he was told, do it cheaply.

Such centers are vital to those making tactical decisions. During the Persian Gulf War, U.S. military officials used such a facility to monitor everything from spy plane pictures to CNN. But military budgets are far beyond the reach of civilian agencies.

"We figured we could do it for $600,000 (Canadian)," says Lemay, who prepared the request for a contract proposal in 1992. "But some of the quotes went as high as $1.6 million."

The budget wasn't the only restriction. The system also had to do multitasking, since crisis situations can't wait for a screen to clear. "Right away we killed all the DOS people," says Lemay. "Only Unix could do it."

Early on, Transport Canada realized the project would exceed its budget if extensive programming and development were required. So when computerActive, an Ottawa NeXT systems integrator, made its proposal, government officials were doubtful. After all, NEXTSTEP was known as a good environment to develop mission critical applications, but the government couldn't afford to write all those programs. computerActive president Kevin Ford knew that.

"Our objective was to use off -the -shelf software as much as possible," Ford says. "More than other operating systems, NEXTSTEP allows us to combine other people's quality work into our own, custom solution. We get to use field-tested modules to build it." It also makes it quickly available and cheaper.

"If we could do that and have it feel like an integrated package, then everybody wins."

The result was more than 95 percent of the application software was shrinkwrap, with only one application written specifically for this operation, a new interface, which was created using Interface Builder and Project Builder. The rest was third party software. While the integration worked smoothly, there were minor problems with using the Beta version of the NEXTSTEP Intel system. "The box squeeze," shrugs Lemay.

Among the products integrated were WordPerfect, SoftPC for DOS applications, 3270Vision for terminal emulation, PowerGuardian software for UPS control and shutdown and SafetyNet Professional for automated tape backup. StayIntouch, Concurrence and NXFax were used for communications, presentation and online fax. Diagram!2.0 for technical drawing, Virtuoso and Pixel Magician were added for graphics drawing and graphics format translation, PencilMeIn for group scheduling.

"In general, what we looked for were programs which followed a consistent interface, so they feel like one program when you (actually) run many of them," says Ford.

"The other idea is they had to be able to connect to the other programs transparently."

For example, during the Vancouver earthquake scenario, the system would draw from a worldwide map database, which drills down to the specific quake zone, displayed on the NeXT workstation. The image is captured, pasted into a drawing package, expert users mark it up using Diagram!2.0. The results are projected on a large screen and distributed via e-mail and fax.

All the center's computers are networked. So are workstations in management offices and other related government departments. Within the center, each workstation is connected to a video feed of television and satellite signals for staff to monitor civilian channels, and a distribution system to broadcast full screen contents to other workstations and large overhead projectors.

A network wide file system allows each workstation to retrieve any of thousands of files at a time, and run any of dozens of application programs that are integrated into a single, seamless system. It also allows access to legacy applications on mainframe computers and DOS systems still in use throughout the department.

The system was built using standard Intel 486 PC hardware, standard telephone, video and projection technology. Traditional network technologies of TCP/IP, NFS and twisted pair wiring were used. On-screen video was done using Screen Machine II. Between 17 workstations there are seven gigabytes of hard disk storage.

And for Transport Canada, facing big budget cuts this year, a welcome bonus. The entire project was accomplished for about $490,000 (Canadian).

Physically, with its overhead projectors and modular banks of screens and audio headsets, the center looks like a NASA launch center. Staff use headsets to listen to television broadcasts, telephone calls and for retrieving voice-annotated e-mail. The centre staff grows from three desk officers to 56 in an emergency as expert teams are called in, depending on the particular emergency. Transport Canada expected it would take a long time to train staff to use the new system. But it was astonished to find this was hardly necessary because of NEXTSTEP's graphical user interface. "Everybody learned on their own," says Lemay.

For example, desk officer Jeff Atkins was an utter computer illiterate. "I haven't the slightest interest in learning codes, and on this (system) I didn't need to learn them," Atkins says.

Finally, and most important for an agency that deals with crises, the system is extremely stable and fault tolerant. "We haven't been able to crash it yet," Jacques Grenier, the director of emergency preparedness says. "Now that, we like."

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