British Columbia

B.C. minister promises review of alert system after patchwork of tsunami warnings

Depending on where you live in B.C. you could have heard about Tuesday's tsunami threat in several different ways. But why wasn't there a single message from a single source?

From sirens to phone calls, texts or a door-knock, each community has its own emergency plan

Officials in Esquimalt, B.C. welcome residents from Greater Victoria to an emergency centre set up after a tsunami warning on Tuesday, Jan. 23. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Depending on where you live in B.C. you could have heard about Tuesday's tsunami threat several different ways — sirens, automated calls, texts, even a knock on the door.

But why wasn't there one single message from one single source?

"There's a whole system of ways of being able to contact people," said B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth. He says the province will review how information was released and how it was received.

"There are different systems in place that meet the needs of ... communities."

Province tells communities, who then tell residents

Early Tuesday morning Emergency Management B.C. issued a warning to communities about the tsunami threat, which then prompts emergency programs to be put into place.

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For those places most at risk, such as Tofino and Ucluelet, that means sounding beach sirens, sending out an automated phone message to all residents and having officials like firefighters go door-to-door or direct traffic to emergency centres.

"Then social media networks begin firing and people begin calling, and people [start] talking to their neighbours," said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne.

Farnworth says each community's emergency plan, which is worked out in collaboration with the province, reflects unique needs.

"And so from what we've seen, by and large, they work very well," he said. "I'm happy that the system worked."

Peter Este lives three houses from the waterfront in Esquimalt, B.C. Firefighters knocked on his door Tuesday morning.

Esquimalt resident Peter Este arrived at an emergency centre on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 after emergency officials knocked on his door and told him to get to higher ground due to a tsunami warning. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"I didn't know what it was," he said of the knock. By the time he got downstairs firefighters had moved onto the next house, but in passing told him about the danger.

Este and his wife packed water, mobile phones, some clothes and an iPad, which he said his wife would use to check for updates at a local emergency centre.

For others in coastal communities like Prince Rupert, upon hearing the warning residents created phone lists to advise others while the city relied heavily on Facebook to get the news out.

That meant multiple people missed the warning entirely.

Others, bizarrely, got information from people abroad who were alerted to the warnings before local residents.

Chris Duffy, executive director for operations with Emergency Management B.C., says he's happy with how the alerting went, but acknowledges it's not prefect.

"Certainly I wouldn't say that we're going to reach every person, every time. It would be nice to think that, but I don't think we're at that point yet."

Some residents in Victoria received information in the form of texts or automated phone calls that directed them to a U.S. government website about the tsunami threat.

That's because Canada and the U.S. have a bilateral agreement to share this type of information according to Mike Angove, the tsunami program manager with theU.S.  National Oceanic Atmospheric Association.

A series of text messages sent to some local residents about the tsunami threat on Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

He says the agency allows people to subscribe to SMS alerts from the NOAA and he says the system worked on this threat.

"Overall we're satisfied that the right procedures were followed and the right alerts were issued and the right dissemination routes were available and used," he said.

In May 2017, Victoria put in place an emergency alert system called Vic-Alert.

Subscribers sign up online and can choose to receive notifications by text, email or voice call. The city also recommends selecting the voice call option to receive a wakeup call in  the event of any emergency in the middle of the night.

Several other alert systems in B.C. also provide updates on province-wide and national emergencies such as Emergency Info B.C., Alert Ready in B.C. and Environment Canada.

The LTE messaging system used in Hawaii to alert anyone connected to a local cellphone tower about a missile threat won't be available in Canada until April.

That's when the CRTC will require all cell providers to provide AlertReady the ability to send out LTE messaging alerts on their networks.

But even with that enhancement, it won't help people who have their phones off or are in remote areas with no service.

In the meantime, Duffy and Farnworth say the province will use this close call to review how the emergency was handled and information was released.

"Technology is advancing at a very significant rate in so many areas that there are obviously going to be ways to make improvements and we want to make sure that those happen," he said.

  • For more on preparedness in B.C. listen to the CBC Podcast Fault Lines.

With files from Megan Thomas and Matt Meuse.