Calgary tech company aims to better organize disaster relief efforts

A Calgary company has developed a technology to better organize people and volunteers during large scale disasters.

RallyEngine is meant to bypass the 'inefficiencies' of contact lists, paper documents, founder says

Cooler temperatures are helping subdue forest fires in the B.C. Interior as firefighters, like Graham Cameron in this CBC photo from 2015, work to douse hot spots. (Chris Corday/CBC)

A Calgary company has developed a technology to better organize people and volunteers during large scale disasters.

RallyEngine is a communications network that can be connected to mobile apps and help organizers bypass time-consuming tasks, such as digging through contact lists, using expensive radio equipment or sending out emails, founder Aaron Salus told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"You can imagine the inefficiencies of doing something like that," he said.

Just this week, British Columbia is managing evacuations in the face of more than 200 forest fires in the interior of the province.

In such a case, organizations could message specific staff or volunteers by filtering a list by skill type and then location, Salus said. If a community government is looking for cooks to volunteer at emergency situations, for example, the emergency network could be used to find them.

"A lot of organizations and authorities that are in charge of keeping communities informed and safe tend to jam that sort of mass-alerting paradigm into the mobile app," Salus said. "The question is, what comes after that alert?"

'Substantial mismatches'

University of Calgary researchers recently analysed nearly 70,000 tweets sent during the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation and found "substantial mismatches between what was offered [via emergency notifications] and what was needed," computer engineering professor Guenther Ruhe told the Calgary Eyeopener earlier this week.

The team is hoping its findings will help app developers improve services, including by adding such features as:

  • Sending emergency text messages.
  • Requesting an ambulance with a tap.
  • Finding the nearest gas station or medical centre.
  • Emergency zone maps. 
  • Safety guidelines.

Salus points to the 2013 floods in southern Alberta. In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi took to the radio to find volunteers to help with disaster relief.

"Radio was the best way to do that and that's not going to change," Salus said.

But he says cellular networks shouldn't be underestimated for speed and ability to locate people.

"[Data and cellular networks] are the last thing to go down and they're the first thing to come back because they're so critical," he said.

"I think what we're learning is that every approach to natural disasters and emergencies of a large scale has to be a layered approach."

The company recently partnered with the local government in High River to test the network, as well as police forces across Canada, he said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.