News / Vancouver

Alaska quake shakes up alarming questions about B.C. tsunami alerts

B.C.'s readiness tested. But why can't we get texts like U.S.?

A tsunami siren tower is shown on Cox Bay Beach in Tofino, B.C. on Jan. 23, 2018. Tsunami warning sirens went off in Tofino and other coastal communities on British Columbia’s west coast Tuesday morning after a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska.

Melissa Renwick / The Canadian Press

A tsunami siren tower is shown on Cox Bay Beach in Tofino, B.C. on Jan. 23, 2018. Tsunami warning sirens went off in Tofino and other coastal communities on British Columbia’s west coast Tuesday morning after a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska.

Around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, Alert Bay resident Pewi Alfred saw a pack of dogs suddenly bolt past.

"I look out the back window and seen five dogs running by," the Kwakwaka'wakw teacher said. "They were running fast … sprinting in the same direction. Then two (more) flew by my gran's. I had an eerie feeling."

Her community, Namgis Nation, scrambled as authorities warned residents door-to door of a tsunami evacuation. Others' dogs bolted, too.

Talk about an early warning system.

But as the day dawned, others on the coast asked why they only saw a tidal wave warning through social media or panicked texts from other time zones.

"It will always be a challenge, for people out of the area having access to these messages, to understand they're not at risk," explained Simon Fraser University communications researcher Peter Anderson. "I'm sure people were getting messages from other countries hoping they're OK. Most important for the public is to first know which notification zone they're in."

Metro Vancouver and Howe Sound are in "Zone E," Victoria in "Zone D" — both deemed not at risk Tuesday. But even if we had been, the mass text alerts showcased by Hawaii's recent false missile alarm isn't available in B.C. Nor will it be until at least April.

"AlertReady is the provincial system used to notify local authorities and will include text alerts in April 2018," Emergency Info B.C. stated.

Unlike the U.S., where cellular companies voluntarily enabled authorities to send emergency texts to their customers in any chosen area since 2012, Canada's regulator opted last April to give companies one year to do the same. And it may take even longer, Anderson suggested.

"The actual roll-out and use of the system, I think, is going to take up to a year because the emergency management community that's going to be using the sytem first has to get familiarized with it," he said. "We are a bit behind — the U.S. has had an automated system particularly for mobile technology, but we've held back.

"Each country has a different regulatory system. When we're dealing with public safety, it's more effective to regulate so all the carriers are appropriately mandated and there's a baseline all entities need to meet."

Several municipalities have opt-in text alert services, including Richmond (which requires subscribers to enter a local address to join), Victoria, Sidney, Squamish-Lillooet, Saanich, and Haida Gwaii — but B.C.'s emergency ministry said no central list exists yet.

"The provincial government very much supports (municipal alerts) and we help fund that," emergency preparedness spokesman Jordan Turner told Metro. "... As far as this specific incident, it's very early; we're contacting local governments, putting together a timeline of what happened, and looking at what worked and what didn't."

Anderson said the municipal approach makes sense, because "you have to use multiple means to reach people, because there's no one-size-fits-all. The messaging has to be consistent going out regardless of which source it's coming through.

"But I still think the public has to be better prepared to know what to do with the messages … and willing to go the next step."

From his perspective, Tuesday's test of the province's systems suggest that the "extent of coverage" of the alert notifications is "quite remarkable." But as planners attempt to improve for future events, Anderson said key is to create "redundancies" where people, especially in remote areas, might be reached through multiple channels. "I'm interested in seeing where any gaps are," he said.

If you don't want to wait for each municipality's evacuation decision, you can subscribe to Arter Mobilize Inc.'s Alertable commercial smartphone app for emergency alerts. App subscribers received Tuesday's tsunami warning, and its cancellation, the company stated.

A ministry spokesman told Metro that the best way to stay updated is to visit Emergency Info B.C.'s alerts website (emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca) or follow its Twitter account — which allows non-subscribes to view posts; Twitter members can also allow text notifications.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Red Cross offers a free Be Ready smartphone app with both alerts and information on preparing for emegencies.

"A lot has changed" in communications technology, Anderson said. "Particularly looking at the tsunami notification event, the increased diversity in ways that we can communicate wasn't there even a few years ago."

Ryan Reynolds, a disaster preparations researcher at the University of B.C.'s School of Community and Regional Planning, is studying how households prepare for disaster — and developing a hand-held smartphone app that guides people through factors they might consider, such as disabilities, pets, or their location's and building's risk factors.

"How can we help people find information they need in advance, and to build plans well before something like today happens?" he said. "We can build a customized emergency plan … for immediately if you have 20 minutes to evacuate, all the way up to if it's coming from Chile or Japan when you have six to eight hours.

"At an institutional level, we've done a really good job of preparing provincially, federally and in most municipalities. But from my own research and interviews, a lot of people felt they were well-prepared — but were probably not. Awareness doesn't help you find your emergency go-bag or communications plans. You have to actually make the effort."

But with governments likely to be reviewing Tuesday's tsunami close-call, such efforts are only as useful as the public knowing what to do when an alert comes.

"If you look at the psychological side of things," Reynolds said, "we've definitely seen that people are reluctant to do this kind of planning in advance because it's time-consuming and costly; we'd rather put off to another day.

"And there's a lot of denial. Thankfully … you can go to stores and purchase a go-bag off the shelves right now. If you want to put your own together, it takes about a week."

Correction (Jan. 24): Metro Vancouver region is in emergency notification Zone E. An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Victoria in the same zone; it's in Zone D.

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