Public Works issued a "letter of interest" Monday to potential suppliers, seeking advice on how to go about creating a cross-Canada safety system for parole officers and other staff who work with offenders in the community.
Corrections Canada says it wants a personal safety device that can be operated from the field using only one hand, anywhere in Canada at any time.
The device must be able to transmit an accurate physical location on a detailed mapping feature, in both official languages, says the letter of interest.
And Public Works is asking interested suppliers for candid advice on the feasibility of the project or whether Corrections Canada needs to "realign (its) expectations with industry capability, experience and direction."
It was not clear Monday why the government is exploring portable alarm systems now.
The last parole officer killed by a parolee was Louise Pargeter in Yellowknife in October 2004. Her murder sparked a formal recommendation at the time by Corrections Canada for "the use of technology relating to personal safety such as distress alarms."
A Corrections spokeswoman, Christa McGregor, said in an email Monday that the department has been working on safety measures ever since Pargeter's murder.
As for the specific panic button proposal, McGregor wrote: "The goal is to generate a broad and relevant picture of what is possible and what current industry leaders believe is the best approach for CSC to take. The response received may be used to develop or modify future procurement strategies."
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said in an interview she is unaware of any increase in incidents involving parole officers that might have caused Corrections Canada to revisit the issue.
"I hope it's not an indication that they anticipate things are about to get a lot worse because of the reduction of services and whatnot while they're in custody," Latimer said.
Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, has warned that prison rehabilitation programming and the use of controlled release through parole are on the decline, and will ultimately hurt public safety.
His 2010-11 annual report, for instance, noted that more than 9,200 inmates were required to take part in programs as part of their correctional plan the previous year, but just over 5,500 did so.
"Timely access to correctional programming is a key and determining factor in establishing whether and at what point in the sentence an offender is eligible to be considered for conditional release," Sapers wrote at the time.
"The overall performance indicators in this area of corrections — including the capacity of CSC to deliver required correctional programs in a timely and effective manner — are not very encouraging."
A recent report posted on Corrections Canada's web site laid out a brief history of parole officers' roles since the late 1970s, and made note of "the changing offender profile" — without elaborating.
But the report did allude to the Conservative government's controversial 2008 "transformation" of the correctional service, with its hardline approach that critics said emphasized punishment over rehabilitation. At the time, the shift was billed by the government as a "stronger focus on how all our efforts contribute to public safety (our primary goal)."
Frank Butara, a communications executive with the corrections service, wrote in June that "in response to the changing offender profile and in response to its Transformation Agenda, (Corrections Canada) is improving practices to enhance the safety and security of staff."
Among those measures, Butara wrote, is "a soon-to-be expanded Community Staff Safety Program, using cutting-edge technology."