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Canada’s emergency alert system has been busy with wildfires and extreme weather. Here’s how it works

With the increase in wildfires and other extreme weather events this year, more Canadians have been receiving emergency alerts on their phones, or through other media, directing them to take precautions or even evacuate their homes.

Some experts say system works well for weather, but could be better

A hand holding a black smart phone that is displaying an emergency alert message on its screen

With the increase in wildfires and other extreme weather events this year, more Canadians have been receiving emergency alerts on their phones, or through other media, directing them to take precautions or even evacuate their homes.

The alerts come via Canada's National Public Alerting System, used for everything from Amber Alerts and alerts about dangerous people to storm warnings and evacuation orders. But most are about weather — and the number sent due to extreme weather, and especially wildfires, has soared in recent years.

In 2021, it sent 175 alerts to Canadians, and 113 of them were related to extreme weather, according to Alert Ready the alert system's brand name.

In 2022, the total jumped to 824, the majority (719) for severe weather or wildfires.

And so far in 2023, there have been 980 alerts, with almost all — 937 — related to wildfires or severe weather.

Experts who study disaster management say the system works quite well for weather alerts. But as some Canadians have observed or experienced first hand, the system is not foolproof, and those experts say it could work even better.

"The technology, the operation, the perception and the confidence of the public in the system all need to work together for these systems to function correctly," said Jack Rozdilsky, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at York University in Toronto.

The challenge, according to Jean Slick, professor of disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, "has been, is the message sent? And is the message sent in a timely manner?"

How do alerts work?

The emergency alert systemis multi-faceted and used by officials at the federal, provincial and territorial level, and by federal and provincial police forces.

The issuer enters the alert into the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) System — the technological infrastructure owned and operated by the Ontario-based company Pelmorex, which also owns The Weather Network. The NAAD then sends the alert to the distributor, be it mobile service providers, cable and satellite companies, radio and television broadcasters — or all of the above — which then sends it to the public.

Wireless devices must be connected to an LTE or 5G network to receive an alert; a challenge if cell access goes down due to the emergency.

"We don't want to be dependent on any one technology," said Slick. "What we want to do is have multiple channels of communication with people. And those multiple channels will be disseminated in different ways."

That might mean also sending the alert through social media — or even some more low-tech options, says Rozdilsky.

"Infrastructure we depend on can become fragile or damaged, such as electricity that powers internet devices or the towers that are needed to communicate," he said.

"It would be foolish for us not to think of having backups for the backup," pointing to measures such as signs on highways, going door-to-door, or even loudspeakers on a vehicle in situations where time permits.

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Plans within the plans

Slick says good emergency alert planning gives the public time to prepare.

That might mean sending out a message alerting people to a risk that's being tracked, such as a fire or storm, in advance of sending an actual warning.

"That helps them to pay more attention to and be more cognizant of warning messages when they come."

She also says officials should have a clear understanding of what triggers the next alert and the one after that.

"There should be a plan on when to issue warnings — and within a plan, one of the things that you have are trigger points. And you have trigger points for different hazards."

For example, in the event of a wildfire, officials might have sent an evacuation warning. But she says there needs to be a clear understanding that if the fire crosses a certain boundary, another alert will be sent raising the warning to an evacuation order.

The content of the alert is also crucial, says Slick. It has to talk about the hazard, personalize it, describe what's going to happen, and talk about the consequences of not acting.

"Those messages also need to have the protective actions you can take — which is shelter in place or to evacuate, or to stay alert and monitor on an hourly basis for further updates."

Any notion that sending out emergency alerts could cause panic, said Slick, is a myth. The idea dates back to the Cold War era, when governments worried that people would panic in the event of a nuclear incident. That led to the study of disaster management — and a discovery of just the opposite.

"What research shows is that human behaviour in disasters is almost — not completely, but almost always — pro-social," Slick said. "People will help, they'll support. They'll do things to help each other, help themselves and help one another. You just have to give them the information."

Timing is everything

When the people of Yellowknife were told they had to get out within 36 hours, officials made sure to tell those who had no vehicle and had to get on a flight to bring their pets, too.

It was a simple but important move that, Slick says, might have been enough to prevent delays among people who didn't want to leave a pet behind.

Equally important, she says, is for officials in rural areas to take into account livestock — and consider issuing pre-evacuation warnings.

"People who have a livelihood and who are trying to get their horses or cattle or farm animals or pets to safety are often delayed in their leaving because of that," she said. "That early warning is important about impending threat so that people can start to take protective actions."

Some phones still don't get alerts

The CRTC, which regulates the alert system, says all cell phones sold by providers in Canada must be able to receive the alerts, meaning they must be LTE/5G capable.

But anyone who didn't get their phone from a Canadian provider or is still using older models may not receive the alerts.

In an email to CBC News, the CRTC said it is looking into how to "improve the reliability of networks and reduce the impacts of outages" for 911 calls and public alerts, including ways that phones could still get alerts in the event of an outage, such as over WiFi.

Alerts also don't work if a phone is silenced or on airplane mode, though a silenced phone which is connected to a network will still get the message on its screen.

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Martin Bélanger, director of public alerting at Pelmorex, says emergency management officials will often use other measures to reach the public when sending an alert, including social media, their own websites or apps, or even news releases.

"And if someone may not receive [the alert] because they didn't have a phone, or they didn't have the opportunity to listen to the radio or watch television, then they may also be in close proximity to someone who may have received the alert and they can also be informed of the situation," he said.

Picture being on a downtown street corner or even just in a home where multiple people live. Your phone may not go off, but chances are another one near you will, or someone you know will send you the important information.

Of course, no alert will work in the middle of the night if you are asleep with your phone turned off or on silent.

Would old-fashioned sirens work better?

Hawaii has an extensive outdoor siren alert system, more than 400 spread over four counties that are used to alert people primarily in the event of a tsunami, though according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), they can also be used to alert people of a hurricane, volcano or wildfire.

But no sirens went off as flames quickly engulfed Maui on Aug. 8.

Maui's emergency management chief later said the sirens purposely weren't used because people associate them with tsunami danger, and might have led people to move toward the fire.

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded," said Herman Andaya.

Though he said he stood by the decision, Andaya resigned from his position a day later.

Several jurisdictions in Canada still have sirens, including tsunami warning systems in B.C., and those near nuclear power plants and other industrial areas in Ontario.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Hogan

Digital producer

Stephanie Hogan is a digital producer with CBC News, based in Toronto. She writes on a variety of subjects, with an interest in politics, health and the arts. She was previously political editor for The National and worked in various roles in TV and radio news.

    With files from Reuters

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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