Broken in case of emergency - The Orca

Broken in case of emergency

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: BC is the only province in Canada that hasn’t used a national cell phone alert system for emergencies. The reason why is frustrating.

The B.C. government has taken great pains to insist to the public that it’s throwing everything resource possible at dangerous wildfires this summer, as well as all the aid and assistance possible to help those who’ve had to be evacuated.

Then came a front-page story in the Globe and Mail on Thursday that outlined how B.C. is the only province in the country that’s yet to use a national cell-phone alert system for emergencies, called Alert Ready.

Alert Ready is a fancy high-tech emergency notification system that can forcibly broadcast a notice to every cell phone in a defined geographic area, as well as cut into radio broadcasts and television feeds, to blanket entire regions with information during a state of emergency.

Sounds like it would be perfect to help communicate the 79 evacuation alerts in place in B.C. (as of June 22) affecting more than 18,000 properties in the interior and southeast, as well as the 4,300 properties already under mandatory evacuation orders.

But B.C. doesn’t use Alert Ready for wildfires.

It doesn’t use it for anything, really. It’s never actually been activated for a real emergency.

(Colin Temple /

The government makes a big deal about testing the system – the most recent test, in May, blasted notification alerts to every phone in the province and then asked for feedback on how it worked.

Yet Emergency Management BC has reserved Alert Ready only for tsunamis caused by earthquakes, as well as “civil emergencies” and Amber Alerts for missing children as issued by the RCMP.

That’s it.

Contrast that with other provinces like Alberta, which has used Alert Ready 25 times for wildfires, reports the Globe.

The story landed like the embarrassing flop that it is for the province. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth issued a statement that made it clear B.C. has to do better.

“Given the increasing threats our communities are facing due primarily to climate change, it’s clear we need to better prioritize the expansion of the Alert Ready system in B.C.” he said.

“Broadcast intrusive alerts have unique advantages with their reach and impact, which can complement the emergency alerting already performed by EMBC and local governments.”

Opposition BC Liberal leader Shirley Bond called on the government to immediately use the tool, and said it could also have made a difference during the record-breaking heat wave in late June to communicate important health messages to hundreds of British Columbians who died.

EMBC later told reporters on a wildfire call that Alert Ready could be used for a “variety of hazards” but only once the province figures out align it the emergency alerts currently being issued by local governments, so as to not confusing the public with conflicting information.

“We have to make sure we get it right when we utilize Alert Ready and make sure it complements and augments and doesn’t cross wires with some of the current alerting systems out there,” said Pader Brach, an EMBC executive director.

“For all the talk on Alert Ready, we see it as a priority and see it as being a very effective system for alert hazards but we also want to make sure we get it right.”

B.C.’s current emergency alert system is a mess – mainly because the B.C. government never took the lead to institute a provincial system. Instead, local governments had to go out and purchase their own to try and get their message to citizens’ cell phones in case of a crisis.

You’ve likely already been asked by your local city, town, region, or fire department to sign up online with your cell phone for emergency messages. Some cities have hired emergency coordinators to handle messaging in a crisis, though many other small towns and regions – including some of those most at risk of wildfires – can’t afford to.

The B.C. government doesn’t actually see it as its role to coordinate or lead any of this.

“Local authorities in B.C. have the responsibility to provide emergency notifications to their residents for all hazards,” EMBC said in a statement. “The province amplifies all evacuation orders and alerts issued by local communities for through EMBC’s EmergencyInfoBC website and social media (Facebook and Twitter) channels.”

That’s a pretty useless role for a level of government that has the most financial and organizational might behind it.

Alert Ready was created by the federal telecommunications branch in 2009. Other provinces have been using it for years. B.C. says it needs more time – but what it really means is it needs to figure out how to fix years of neglect of its own making.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.