Saskatchewan·In Depth

U.S. tornado warning system far surpasses Canada's

Environment Canada’s severe weather warning system is lagging far behind the American system in several ways, potentially putting lives at risk, a storm chaser says.

American system aggressively pushes alerts in various ways

A roof was torn off a home on the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan after a tornado struck in 2010. (CBC)

Environment Canada’s severe weather warning system is lagging far behind the American system in several ways, potentially putting lives at risk.

That’s the conclusion of Saskatchewan storm chaser Greg Johnson, who has tracked tornadoes on both sides of the border for a decade.

Johnson says that Environment Canada has “a communication problem where they don’t just readily share the information, it’s not available quickly.”

“They don’t have a really good mechanism for getting that information that they do have out to the public.”

Johnson said that compared with the United States, it’s as though Canada has no warning system at all.

Greg Johnson, a Saskatchewan storm chaser, is not impressed with how Canada shares information about severe weather. (CBC)

When a storm is bearing down in the U.S., sirens go off, official warnings interrupt radio and TV broadcasts and people get texts and tweets from the weather service on their phones.

“In Canada, we don’t do any of that. Environment Canada posts to their website, ‘Hey there’s a problem here. We got a tornado warning or we’ve got a severe weather warning.’”

Johnson argued this country must get much more aggressive about weather warnings.

The director of national programs with Environment Canada, Ken Macdonald, said a more aggressive approach is in the works.

“Environment Canada uses as many dissemination channels as we possibly can to get our information out,” Macdonald said, pointing to Canada’s use of weather radios.

“We’re continually branching out to use more systems.”

Macdonald said Americans may be ahead in the development of warning technologies because there are far more tornadoes in the United States than in Canada.

Every year Americans see more than 1,000 tornadoes while Canadians can expect to see 60 to 80 of them.

Sounding the alarm

One of the most devastating tornadoes to hit Saskatchewan in recent years took place on the Kawacatoose First Nation in the summer of 2010. At the time, Environment Canada issued numerous warnings and watches through traditional media alerts. However, people in the community told CBC News the first awareness they had of an approaching tornado was by looking out their windows.

Johnson said that when it appears a tornado is forming south of the border, the National Weather Service springs to action.

“In the United States, they have what’s called a push method,” Johnson explained. “They go, ‘Oh man we’ve got a potential tornado, we’ve got a potentially dangerous situation.’ And they push it out to the public.”

Part of that system is an extensive network of sirens controlled by local authorities who sound the alarm.

Jay Anderson, a former Environment Canada meteorologist who is now a storm chaser, said the U.S. system is a sight to behold.

“All of a sudden the sirens go off all around me and everyone in the States in all those little towns know exactly what those sirens mean and what to do.”

Anderson said it’s a much different story in his home province. “There’s only one community in Manitoba that I know of that has a siren.”

Tornado texting

A couple of years ago the U.S. introduced a mobile alert system.

Greg Gust, with the National Weather Service in North Dakota, said it’s a built-in system on most new cellphones.

“If you take your smartphone to Florida and there’s a tornado warning in Florida you’re going to get it where you are,” Gust explained. “If you’re in New Hampshire you’ll get it. If you’re in North Dakota you’ll get it.”

Macdonald said that idea is being pursued in Canada. He hopes it may be in place within a couple of years.

“Industry Canada is working with the cellphone industry right now to investigate the applications of the technology in Canada,” Macdonald said. “We are eager to see that implemented as well.”

Weather warnings break into broadcasts

All broadcasters in the U.S. are tied into an emergency alert system and are required to have a piece of equipment that can receive information about national emergencies or weather warnings.

And local authorities can require broadcasters to deliver those warnings on TV and radio.

Johnson described how he’s seen the system work. “Ryan Seacrest gets knocked off the air, the screen goes blue and they go 'Hey, you’ve got a tornado warning in your area.’”

Canada launched a similar system in 2010 as a result of a partnership between the federal government and the provinces.

Macdonald said it’s “a public alerting system that can take alerts from any manner of public authority and get them out to the media instantly and in a format that can automatically go to air.”

However, Macdonald said, “It is not mandatory at the present time” and most media outlets across the country don’t participate.

Macdonald said the CRTC is in the midst of considering mandating all broadcast media to sign onto the system.

Lack of political will the problem?

Johnson said the delay in implementing better ways of alerting the public about dangerous weather doesn’t seem to be caused by excessive cost but a lack of political will.

“It’s a leadership issue, it’s an issue of policy,” Johnson said. “These aren’t things that cost a lot of money.”
Greg Gust, with the U.S. National Weather Service in North Dakota, says informing people about dangerous weather is critical. (CBC)

Gust said the many weather disasters that have struck his country have focused the attention of political leaders.

“So, for example, Hurricane Sandy — which pounded into the mid-Atlantic states and into New York City itself — that provided a loosening of purse strings if you will,” Gust said. 

Anderson said “as an ex-forecaster I kind of wish we had that [American weather warning] system here but it would be pretty expensive.”

"It’s probably overkill for us. It may be even be a little overkill for North Dakota.”

But Gust said that when it comes to public safety, it’s not possible to be too careful.

“It is critical for that information to get out. A tornado is critical to get out. There’s no such thing as overkill,” he said. 


Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001.


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