B.C. stays silent as Alberta alerts its public about wildfires

B.C. emergency officials have yet to use Canada’s direct-to-cellphone alert system to warn the public of major dangers, despite an unprecedented, week-long heatwave that killed hundreds of people. After which the village of Lytton was destroyed. Led the evacuation of thousands.

Statistics show that British Columbia is the only province to never use the system — known as Alert Ready — since jurisdictions across Canada got access to its cellphone-alerting technology three years ago. City managers have expressed concern as the province reserves the system for tsunamis to the exclusion of all other threats. By comparison, emergency officials in neighboring Alberta have used Alert Ready more than 70 times since 2019—including 25 times for wildfires.

Canada’s national warning system has been criticized because provinces have different standards for when and to whom alerts should be sent.

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Emergency officials across Canada got the technology to send direct-to-cellphone alerts to all devices within a specified area in mid-2018. This device once only expanded the reach and immediacy of warnings sent via television and radio. Yet whether or not alerts are sent depends on how provincial officials investigate threats.

In BC, it was not deployed for the fire at Lytton earlier this month, in which two people were killed. It was also not deployed during a heat wave, when more than 800 unexpected deaths were recorded between June 25 and July 1, when temperatures hit 49.6 °C, four times the usual number of unexpected deaths.

The minister in charge of emergency management BC acknowledged that the Alert Ready system should no longer be silent.

“It is clear that we need to better prioritize the expansion of the Alert Ready system in BC,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnsworth said in a statement.

He acknowledged that Alert Ready has capabilities the province’s warning systems lack. Only the technology of the national system can commandeer wind waves to pop up “broadcast intrusion” warnings on all TVs, radios and cellphones in an area.

The B.C. government reserves an alert ready for the threat of a type of natural disaster. “Currently, Emergency Management BC will only use Alert Ready to report a potential tsunami,” the province says on its emergency website.

EMBC will not answer questions about why Alert Ready is reserved for tsunamis. The department also said that it would not make any of its officers available for interview.

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“BC is actively investigating what role intrusive warning systems may play in informing the public about other events beyond the tsunami,” said EMBC spokesman Jordan Turner. He said the province’s police could use the system to alert the public about active shooters. No such alert has been issued so far.

After years of failure by federal and provincial security ministries to agree on a national alert system, the Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission of Canada ordered telecommunications companies in 2009 to create a common alerting channel that could be used throughout the country. is.

But the CRTC could not direct how the system is used because emergency management is a provincial responsibility. The federal government has passed no legislation shaping the system, gives no money to it, and oversees operations. Provincial emergency-management organizations (EMOs) run their systems as they see fit.

The consequences of a lack of clear and uniform guidelines became apparent in Nova Scotia last year, when officers unfamiliar with the system struggled to generate Alert Ready messages about a gunman in a fake RCMP uniform and driving a replica cruiser. Communication broke down between the provincial EMO and the local RCMP. Police instead issued a warning on Twitter. During the deadliest mass shooting in Canada, 22 people died in 13 hours.

The 25 wildfire warnings issued in Alberta since 2019 accounted for the vast majority of the 30 wildfire warnings issued across Canada in that period. (The AlertReady website only records data as of January 1, 2019.)

Records show that most of Alberta’s 25 wildfire alerts were issued by counties, towns and First Nations. The province’s emergency officials say they take pride in helping small communities to warn their citizens about the danger.

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“Public safety always trumps everything else,” said Tim Tritten, who recently retired as team leader for Alberta Gov. He said there are other alert systems in Alberta as well and they reinforce each other.

“The minute matters,” he said. “If you can inspire people to get a truck full of gas, and they have their pills, their passports, and their photos ready to go – you might be ready to move.”

The B.C. government says its role in alerting often amounts to rebroadcasting on its websites what communities tell of natural disasters.

EMBC’s Mr. Turner said, “Local officials in BC have a responsibility to provide their residents with emergency notifications for all hazards.” He added that “the province enhances all evacuation orders and alerts issued by local communities.”

But some municipal managers say their lack of access to Alert Ready has forced a patchwork system.

Daniel Stevens, Vancouver’s director of emergency management, said B.C. cities and towns are buying their own alert systems and software, but capabilities are limited: people must sign up to receive phone alerts, and such systems allow such people. Leave out those who are not residents here. areas such as commuters, truck drivers and tourists.

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“People will need to download an app or subscribe in some form,” Mr. Stevens said. “We can’t have the mandatory push that disrupts TVs and radios and sends messages to cellphones. It’s completely controlled, 100 percent, by the BC province”

Furthermore, he said, could people falsely believe that their cellphones would alert them to emergencies in B.C. The province used Alert Ready “for annual tests, giving the public the impression that That it is an operational system.”

“I don’t consider it current for tsunami alerts – which they’ve consistently said they’re using the system for at this point. But I don’t believe it’s well understood in the public,” Mr. Stevens said. .

Records show that BC officials once expected to issue a wide range of warnings.

Years ago, when the CRTC asked organizations across Canada whether there was a need to build systems to facilitate direct-to-cellphone alerting, EMBC and other provincial departments stated that such capabilities would be highly needed for all types of disasters. .

“The province will issue a wide-area intrusion alert for events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, or major hazardous material incidents,” reads the BC government’s CRTC submission in 2016.

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The document said the long-term plan was to “allow key stakeholders to access the warning system in their jurisdiction”.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our BC and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing you with a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. .

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