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Communication is key when severe weather looms

Canada’s Alert Ready system can help save lives in emergencies.
UBC post-doctoral research fellow Ryan Reynolds specializes in emergency preparedness

Climate change is creating increasingly powerful weather systems that can kill people and lay waste to infrastructure.

On this score, 2021 was a wake-up call for British Columbians. 

The province suffered record-breaking heat in June, and hotter-than-average weather afterward, causing nearly 600 deaths between June 18 and August 12, according to the BC Coroners Service. 

At least five others died in a landslide on Highway 99 north of Pemberton on November 15, after an atmospheric river pelted the province with record-breaking amounts of rain.

The province appeared to some to be caught off-guard by the severity of looming weather systems, given that it failed to issue emergency warning messages via Canada’s three-year-old National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) System, branded Alert Ready, and operated by Weather Network owner Pelmorex as a condition of its broadcasting licence. 

Pelmorex employs dozens of people to operate and maintain the system around the clock and to provide communications, Pelmorex director of public alerting Martin Belanger told BIV. 

Its free system for all governments can beam alerts to smartphones within targeted geographic areas that can be as small as a few city blocks, depending on the proximity of cell towers, he said.

The alerts can also take the form of a scrolling band of text shown on TV screens and an automated message that breaks into radio programming, said Belanger.

Instead of using Alert Ready, the B.C. government slipped weather warnings into press releases, such as one that was primarily focused on providing an update on the spread of COVID-19.

Critics of the government’s response to severe weather noted that B.C. was the only province that, until an active shooter incident in Vanderhoof in November, had never issued an Alert Ready message.

In contrast, Ontario issued 71 Alert Ready messages in the first 11 months of 2021.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said that part of the reason for this was that B.C.’s process is to work with municipalities.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun confirmed to media that before severe flooding hit his city’s Sumas Prairie region, he did not want an Alert Ready message sent because “we did not want to alarm the whole city.”

Instead, Abbotsford officials went door to door in affected areas, he said.

Academics who study emergency preparedness say alerts should not cause undue fear.

“If your alert message is prone to causing a panic, you’ve already failed, because you haven’t been able to communicate that message appropriately,” said University of British Columbia post-doctoral research fellow Ryan Reynolds, who specializes in emergency preparedness.

Frequent alerts, he said, get the public used to receiving that form of communication. Further, messages in those alerts can be specific enough to make it clear to those who are not affected that they are not in danger.

Canada’s Alert Ready system, however, is not meant to inform people about impending weather systems, but rather about specific, and impending, life-threatening situations – some of which may be caused by weather, he said.

“Weather emergencies are a little different than something like seasonal floods, which you can predict,” Reynolds said.

Approaching weather may look threatening on radar, only to then taper out in following hours, he added. 

When there is clear danger from severe weather, that is the time to alert the public, said Reynolds.

There are also many ways to communicate with the public.

Farnworth downplayed the value of issuing the alerts and said communication through press conferences and news releases to media had taken place.

“If you’re on the Coquihalla highway at 120 kilometres an hour, or where there’s no cell coverage, an Alert Ready system is not going to be of assistance,” Farnworth said at a mid-November press conference.

Reynolds agreed that a better system to alert drivers would be more large signs that rise above highways and can show scrolling, or alternating, messages, which can be changed remotely and can warn about potential landslides. 

“Those signs are a great idea, and I wish we had more of them throughout the province, he said. 

“It does get the message directly to drivers, but they are not cheap, and they’re not necessarily easy to maintain. There has to be a balance. It is like an onion – all of these ways to communicate are layers.” •