Internal memo raises red flag over quake warning system

An internal memo obtained by CBC News exposes a rift between Natural Resources Canada and Ottawa's controversial IT provider, Shared Services Canada. The document raises questions about whether Canada's earthquake warning system is being maintained properly, including at two aging data centres.

Natural Resources Canada the latest department to raise concerns about service delivery by Shared Services

A couple walk along Whiffin Spit Park following a tsunami warning in Sooke, B.C., on Jan. 28. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Earthquake- and tsunami-monitoring systems may have been put at risk after Shared Services Canada – Ottawa's controversial IT department – was handed the job of maintaining the aging equipment and data centres.

That's a red flag in an internal memo from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) discussing whether Canada has adequate infrastructure to help alert citizens about threats to coastlines, especially in British Columbia.

"NRCan continues to struggle to obtain appropriate levels of service from Shared Services Canada (SSC), in particular to repair and replace communications infrastructure for our mission-critical systems, to provide response outside working hours, and to define service standards for critical communications links to support tsunami warning," says the March 2 document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

"We continue to try to make progress with our SSC partners."

Blacked out

The memo — which has a key section blacked out — was a post-mortem report on a Jan. 23 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska with an epicentre about 320 kilometres offshore. The document highlights "risks associated with tsunami warning for Canada" and the section referring to SSC is headed: "Infrastructure issues."

The magnitude 7.9 earthquake resulted in only a small, 12-centimetre wave – the length of an iPhone – which hit the B.C. coast without causing damage.

A Titan accelerometer sensor sits deep underwater at the Cascadia fault off the West Coast to detect tsunamis. Natural Resources Canada relies on Shared Services Canada, the controversial IT agency, to maintain the system. (Ocean Networks Canada)

But the incident exposed an "abject failure" of Alaska's own warning systems, state seismologist Michael West told a U.S. Senate committee a week later.

A local power blackout "caused internet outages that essentially shut down parts of the seismic network for more than an hour" because many systems lacked backup power, West said.

NRCan continues to struggle to obtain appropriate levels of service from Shared Services Canada ...- Internal memo on risks surrounding Canada's earthquake and tsunami warning systems

NRCan operates about 150 earthquake-monitoring stations across Canada, as well as data centres in Sidney, B.C. and Ottawa. They feed seismic data to an American tsunami warning centre in Palmer, Alaska.

The Palmer facility issues tsunami alerts within three or four minutes of detecting an offshore quake. Those alerts go to B.C.'s emergency management agency, among others. The B.C. agency is responsible for distributing the alerts to the province's coastal residents and communities.

The NRCan memo, from associate deputy minister Glenn Mason, says Canada needs to do more research into how to better detect tsunamis and reduce the number of false alerts, and to repair and replace defunct IT systems. The section of the memo raising concerns about SSC is underlined for emphasis.

The department had been responsible for maintaining its own information technology systems until 2012, when the task was assigned to the newly created Shared Services Canada. The agency absorbed 76 of NRCan's IT professionals.

The tsunami that hit residences after a powerful earthquake in Natori, Japan on March 11, 2011 put a warning system in British Columbia to the test. Natural Resources Canada's monitoring stations help provide data to quickly spot tsunamis. (Kyodo News/Associated Press)

The memo suggests the six-year transition of IT from NRCan to Shared Services has been troubled, as it has been for other federal departments also forced to cede their IT oversight to Shared Services in 2012.

Statistics Canada, the RCMP, Correctional Service Canada and Justice Canada are among the departments that have complained about poor service from SSC — especially when it comes to the critical data centres upon which they rely.

Systems haven't failed yet

Asked for comment on the memo, agency spokesman Charles Anido said: "Natural Resources Canada and Shared Services Canada work closely together on communications infrastructure for mission-critical systems for tsunami warnings."

NRCan spokesperson Jocelyn Argibay said the department "is working with SSC on streamlining procurement for specialized services and equipment required to maintain the seismograph network and working to ensure that network applications are moved to modern data centres."

Both Argibay and Anido noted that the earthquake-monitoring systems have never failed, partly because of built-in redundancies.

NRCan recently spent $16 million to upgrade seismometers and GPS instruments at many of its monitoring stations across the country.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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