Sault GIS registry protects vulnerable citizens

The Vulnerable Persons Registry, co-ordinated by Kimberley LeClair, has been successful during its one-year pilot project. The registry allows vulnerable residents of Sault Ste. Marie to register their medical information with the program, so that emergency services personnel are better able to assist them during an emergency.

In 2003, Sault Ste. Marie-born Lewis Whelan, a tenacious 21-year-old living in southern Ontario, was determined to create a new life for himself after a workplace electrical accident took three limbs and left him with burns to three quarters of his body.

But his new lease on life was cut short after a severe blackout left him for 22 hours without air conditioning—a requirement to help regulate his body temperature.

In the months following Whelan’s death, one question loomed for the creative minds at the Community Geomatics Centre: why couldn’t geographic information systems (GIS) data be used to help prevent a similar tragedy? After close to a decade working on the problem, they realized it could.

Launched in October 2011, the Vulnerable Persons Registry (VPR) is a free, confidential and voluntary system available to Sault Ste. Marie residents who may be vulnerable during an emergency situation because of limited mobility, mental health challenges, hearing impairment, or the need for life-sustaining equipment.

“We’ve designed it to be transferable across Canada, so it has that potential,” said registry co-ordinator Kimberley LeClair.

Because the information is incorporated directly into the dispatch systems of emergency personnel, firefighters, paramedics and police can access key information about people who need assistance during a 911 call or a widespread community emergency such as a blackout or flooding.

“It helps equip them with that key information immediately, so they’re aware before they get to the home in a 911 situation,” LeClair said. “But also, if we have a large-scale emergency, it’s going to help them to allocate resources quickly and efficiently.”

It’s another achievement for the Community Geomatics Centre, which has been an ongoing success story since it first started using GIS more than a decade ago for everything from mapping out traffic stops to pinpointing library use.

Emergency services had to alter their dispatch systems to be able to handle the additional information from the registry, and the data is now fed into the Ontario Police Technology Information Co-operative (OPTIC), a shared dispatch system used by 42 police services in Ontario, including the Sault and Sudbury, said Paul Beach, the centre’s manager.

Though handling very private information, there have never been complaints relating to the VPR. That’s because the centre has done a good job of educating the public about how the information enhances their quality of life, Beach said.

“We’re trying to use technology, partnerships and public data to improve our community and help other communities,” he said.

The registry’s one-year pilot project ended in October, and LeClair is now tweaking it based on feedback from registrants and partners. The website is undergoing a redesign to make it more efficient, and expansion opportunities are on the horizon.

LeClair has been contacted by more than 17 countries from as far as Australia, and organizations like the Alzheimer’s Society and the North East Local Health Integration Network have expressed their interest.

Here at home, one doesn’t have to look further than Thunder Bay to see how the registry could help. Severe flooding this past spring caused the city to declare a state of emergency, and LeClair believes that, as similar scenarios play out, demand for the registry will increase. n

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