Cities must better prepare for communicating in a crisis

From a city manager driving around in his pajamas looking for a cell signal to officials using social media for primary communications, an emergency planner says there are lessons to be learned from Ottawa's tornado aftermath.

Emergency planner points out contradictions in city plans

In the days following the tornadoes that struck Ottawa and Gatineau on Sept. 21, city officials on both sides of the river are reflecting on their communications strategies. (Jackie & Rick Morris)

From a city manager driving around in his pyjamas looking for a cellular signal to officials using social media for primary communications, an emergency planner says there are lessons to be learned from Ottawa's tornado aftermath.

The City of Ottawa has acknowledged that communication was an issue on Friday, Sept. 21, the evening that three tornadoes touched down in different neighbourhoods across the city, knocking out power for more than 180,000 Hydro Ottawa customers.

"We have policies in many municipalities to notify people their power is out, via devices that need power," said Allan Bonner, an urban planner and crisis manager.

"This is more like sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live than it is an emergency response."

Communication No. 1 issue

City manager Steve Kanellakos said getting the message out to residents on the night of the storm was their top challenge.

"I couldn't get a signal … so I couldn't communicate with our emergency operations centre. I was sitting in my car in my pyjamas," he said.

City of Ottawa manager Steve Kanellakos says communicating effectively with residents was a challenge in the hours after the tornadoes hit and knocked out power in huge swaths of the city. (Kate Porter/CBC)

While utility services and city communications staff were posting messages on Twitter shortly after the storms, the first news releases to media outlets were sent at 10:44 p.m.

"City officials have obviously been blinded to normal, human communication because of a fixation with social media," Bonner said.

Twitter and Facebook now tend to be the go-to for sending out public information, but the mainstream media is still a lifeline, according to Bonner.

"The list of things you don't know in a crisis will always exceed the things you do know. But you must instantly communicate what you do know for sure and then keep communicating it until the crisis is over," he said.

In a power outage, Bonner said there are many old-fashioned, low-tech options that can be used to notify people about what's going on, including horns, helicopters equipped with loudspeakers, knocking on doors, and electronic signs on emergency vehicles.

Complaints to councillors

Some residents complained to city councillors about a lack of information as the crisis unfolded.

There's more demand and expectation for up-to-the-minute communications today than ever before, according to College ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

"The information was there. It's how it was disseminated by the city that was more of an issue. I think we can improve that," he said.

"We have to be very clear: if there's no state of emergency, then what are the communication protocols?"

Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans suggested a debrief will be needed to learn lessons from the storm in case something like it ever happens again.

"Social media was really, really good at pushing out messages, but a lot of seniors felt maybe the communication could have been different," she said.

An information session was held on Saturday for residents from Arlington Woods and Craig Henry neighbourhoods where communication was at the forefront of the conversation.

"My husband never got the warning on his phone … a lot of people never got it. So, what's going to happen the next disaster?" asked Betty Rose from Arlington Woods.

But communications concerns also extended to what happened after the storm.

One resident told officials the city relied too much on radio and social media when people didn't have power and the elderly don't have access to Twitter or Facebook.

They wondered why officials weren't going door-to-door to hand out information instead.

"It would have been nice if there was a little better communication that we could get out from the city on just exactly what was going on," said Ray Skrebutenas, who isn't able to live in his Arlington Woods home because of the damage.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli pointed out people should have battery-operated radios in case of an emergency. 

Gatineau, Que., learned from floods

One of the tornadoes also touched down in Gatineau, destroying and damaging apartment buildings, daycare centres and schools.

A man and woman hold each other as they survey the damage in Gatineau's Mont-Bleu neighbourhood following a powerful tornado on Sept. 21, 2018. (Lorian Bélanger/Radio-Canada)

City officials in Gatineau said they had learned from previous crisis situations, including extensive flooding in 2017.

Gatineau set up an emergency measures centre right away, and provided hourly status reports and regular news releases to the media.

"Since last Friday, there have been 16 news releases in English and French," said Yves Melanson, one of the city's spokespeople.

"We've held six meetings with the tornado victims so far, we've had over 55 tweets in French, 34 in English, for a total of 89. We had 29 Facebook postings." 

Since the tornadoes, Gatineau has also held frequent news conferences and sends SMS text messages directly to residents who have registered to receive them.

Melanson said Gatineau has also learned not to underestimate the public interest in what's going on during the cleanup.

"People want to make a difference, they want to help out," he said.

"In the case of Gatineau, for the flooding and the tornado as we're seeing, the interest and the genuine attitude of people is empathy and what can I do."

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at


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