By Shirley Bond
Last month’s earthquake near Haida Gwaii serves as a reminder to all of us just how important it is to be prepared for emergencies. In the days since this event, a number of questions and concerns have come forward around how and when communities received tsunami information from the B.C. government.
We have a robust and multi-faceted emergency management system in British Columbia, one that is recognized globally for its efficiency and effectiveness. While much of the public and media focus has been on social media, it’s critical to remember that it is just one part of what is a comprehensive notification system.
I know, in response to the earthquake, the system worked well at the local-authority level and our operational team at Emergency Management B.C. responded quickly and worked diligently to keep the public informed. This is not to suggest there aren’t aspects of the response that can’t be done better.
On that night, as is the case when any earthquake happens and there is the potential a tsunami may impact B.C.’s coast, the first official notification came within minutes from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. The center sent this notification to EMBC as well as to the many local governments, agencies, media and individuals who are registered with its notification system. As is appropriate, many local authorities began acting as soon as they received this initial notification.
As the next step to further increase awareness of this notification, EMBC staff then began using a variety of tools to relay this critical emergency information to local governments, media and key stakeholders. In fact, within 12 minutes the Emergency Coordination Centre began directly calling provincial emergency management staff and local authorities in the impacted regions.
Local authorities are the first responders in B.C.’s communities and are required by legislation to have emergency plans in place that include procedures for relaying critical emergency information to residents and visitors.
The initial tsunami notification from the ECC also went to senior levels of government, representatives from the military and Public Safety Canada, RCMP, utilities and B.C. Ambulance. That weekend, we saw the leadership of local authorities up and down the coast as they activated emergency action plans.
One of the other major tools government uses to contact British Columbians directly is the Provincial Emergency Notification System. This was added in 2006 as part of our earthquake and tsunami response plan and uses technology to systematically send tsunami notifications via phone, fax and e-mail to thousands of first responders, local governments and the media.
Our government will do everything it can to notify as many people as possible. Our first priority is to contact first responders and those who will lead the local emergency response, and then to let them take over and decide how best to contact the citizens of their communities.
The staff behind our @EmergencyInfoBC Twitter feed will always be working to find that right balance between accuracy and timeliness in how we post social media updates, but at the end of the day, the fact remains if Mother Nature has let you know there is a problem, don’t wait for your cellphone to ring, or to get a text or Twitter message.
Move into emergency mode and activate your plan. Especially if we’re facing a large earthquake or other disaster, your Internet or cellphone access may be limited and it will be your initial response that saves your life.
The most important thing for people in coastal areas of B.C. to understand is that when the ground shakes – especially if it goes on longer than a minute – that’s the first notification that a tsunami could impact the area. Anyone in coastal locations who feels strong shaking from an earthquake should assume that a tsunami may have been generated and should immediately move to high ground as soon as the shaking stops.
We must never forget that emergency preparedness begins with each of us as individuals. All British Columbians should have emergency plans and kits in place for themselves and their families. And all British Columbians should take the time to familiarize themselves with their community’s emergency plan.
As with any large emergency response, I have asked EMBC to conduct a review of how our response and communications systems worked. It’s only responsible that we continue to look at not only what went right, but more importantly, where we can improve and how we can better work with our emergency response partners in local communities to notify and protect our citizens.
I can reassure British Columbians that our government is committed to providing a world-class public safety response.
Shirley Bond is B.C.’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General.