After the earthquake: Kitimat must immediately upgrade its emergency communications

As a 7.7 magnitude earthquake hit off Haida Gwaii shortly after eight o’clock on Saturday, I was at the Haisla Recreation Centre as the Haisla Nation marked the return of the G’ps Golox totem pole. Like a boat being lifted by gentle waves, the Rec Centre began to quietly roll up and down, then the rolling seemed to accelerate just a bit. I realized that it was an earthquake. As I told CBC’s Ian Hanomansing  later in the evening, I have been in a number of earthquakes, and for me at least, this quake, at least at Kitamaat Village, the rec centre was not shaking as badly as in some of the others I have felt.

The subsequent events of the evening show that the emergency communication system in Kitimat needs immediate improvement.

Cell service

Cell phone service at the village is poor and after the rolling stopped neither myself nor my Kitimat Daily colleague Walter McFarlane was able to get “bars.”

Now as a former network producer for both CBC and CTV I have handled a large number of earthquake stories from around the world over the past quarter century (sitting at a desk, I should add). With that experience, I was hoping to get a cell hit at the village so I could bring up Twitter. I already subscribe to the US Geological Survey and Canadian earthquake alert feeds. The US and Canadian computers automatically report earthquakes within seconds of detection and send out a Twitter bulletin as the same time as those computers are alerting their human masters. If I had been able to get cell service I would have known within minutes that the Haida Gwaii earthquake was a major event. (I did follow the alerts from my computer once I got back to Kitimat itself).

Recommendation One. Cell service in Kitimat, Kitamaat Village, the harbour area must be upgraded as soon as possible. Telus has applied to council to erect a new cell tower here. Given the events of the past 24 hours, District Council should make sure that all parts of the District of Kitimat and the Haisla Nation have proper cell coverage no matter what service one subscribes to, not just for the convenience of subscribers but for emergency situations.

Automatic alerts

With experience one knows that in a situation such as Saturday night, the official websites such as the US Geological Survey and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center as well as  Natural Resources Canada are often overwhelmed. That is why the media use RSS feeds, Twitter feeds and e-mail alerts. It is also important to realize that these emergency organizations have their own language and procedures. It appears that a lot of the confusion on Saturday came from misinterpretation of the various Canadian and US warning systems.

Recommendation Two. If Kitimat emergency services are not familiar with how the US based earthquake and tsunami centres work, they should be trained in those systems, simply because the Americans are well ahead of Canada in these areas because the alerts go out by computer automatically and are constantly updated and as Saturday night showed, are often quicker and farther ahead than the Canadian systems.

Once I was back in Kitimat, it was clear that communications were breaking down, and this was at a time the tsunami warning was still active. There were numerous messages on Twitter and Facebook, from residents of Kitimat either trying to find out what was going on or retweeting/reposting rumours including one that the Kildala neighbourhood was being evacuated. I am told that residents were calling the RCMP to ask what was going on. This was another breakdown since North District HQ in Prince George handles all police services in this region and were likely busy with quake calls on Haida Gwaii, so that information calls in Kitimat that should have been handled by an emergency services public communications person were being handled the Mounties.

There were reports that one man was going door to door in Kildala telling people to evacuate. Whether this person was well intentioned but misinformed or a imposter intent on mischief doesn’t matter, there was an information vacuum.

It was clear from Twitter that other districts and municipalities were using that service to spread official information. (I don’t follow other areas on Facebook so it is unclear if information was being posted on Facebook. There was certainly no official presence from Kitimat on Facebook Saturday night.) It appears from reports in the Kitimat Daily and tweets about the Northern Sentinel that Kitimat emergency services was sending information out by fax. While faxing information was an advance in the 1980s, faxes are obsolete in 2012. Many major newsrooms no longer use fax machines after being inundated by junk faxes and after they laid off all the editorial assistants who would have cleared those fax machines (even by the late 90s most faxes were dumped in the garbage unless the EA had been told to look for a specific fax). Also though it is now more than two years since I returned to Kitimat and I regularly freelance for Global, CBC and Canadian Press, I had no contact from anyone in emergency services (also I don’t have a fax machine).

Recommendation Three: The District of Kitimat must immediately bring its emergency communications into the 21st century, with Twitter accounts, a Facebook page and an emergency e-mail or text message plan for media and other officials who can get the messages. ( A number of jurisdictions already use text messages for emergency alerts at various graduated levels, official, media, public). When the main means of communication today is social media, an emergency organization can no longer follow outdated procedures, an organization must be on social media immediately it becomes clear that there is an emergency (as we are seeing with all the official tweets with the Hurricane Sandy crisis on the east coast)

CFTK

In an emergency situation, local radio and television are vital to communications and letting people know what is going on.

CFTK did a much better job on March 27. 1964 after Kitimat felt the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday Anchorage earthquake than it did on the weekend with the Haida Gwaii earthquake.

The inadequate coverage of the quake was certainly not the fault the of the current CFTK news staff who were working hard (probably on their own time and unpaid) keeping Twitter updated with what they knew. The fault lies with corporate management across the media which these days doesn’t want to spend the money and resources and training to fulfill the public service portion of their broadcast licence mandate.

(There was a similar breakdown in the May 2000, Walkerton, Ontario e-coli crisis where the local medical officer of health was initially unable to alert the public because local radio wasn’t staffed on the weekends–the local stations were taking satellite feeds from their corporate headquarters)

In 1964, long before satellites, when the microwave towers that joined CFTK to the Canadian networks were still being built, the staff of CFTK, then, of course under local management, went to a live special within an hour of the Anchorage quake being felt far off from Alaska in Kitimat. The CFTK anchors were keeping its audience updated with “rip and read” wire copy, a camera on an atlas for a map and phone interviews.

In contrast, on this Saturday night, CFTK was taking the CBC BC network feed which was a hockey rerun (hardly a show that attracts  major audience numbers and certainly not a vital broadcast) until the CBC management in Vancouver decided to go to full network news special.

Since CFTK is the station that broadcasts not only to Kitimat, but to Haida Gwaii as well, CFTK should have been ahead of Vancouver on this story, called in its staff and mounted their own live special, joining the CBC feed when it began but, as on an election night, breaking away for local news when justified. CFTK has a responsibility under its licence from the CRTC to provide that service to the northwestern region, not just sending what ad revenue it generates back to Astral.

Rio Tinto Alcan

Another question that must be asked in this situation is where was Rio Tinto Alcan on Saturday night? In all areas that were under a tsunami warning the first scrutiny and clue if there was to be a problem is that region would be found by observing what has happening between the low tide line and the maximum hide tide line. In Prince Rupert, from the Twitter feeds I saw, public officials were monitoring the waterfront and the tide lines and updating the public. RTA has all the advantages of the private port of Kitimat. It appears that monitoring the water level at the tide lines at the port of Kitimat was the responsibility of Plant Protection. Was RTA communicating what was happening with emergency services? Since RTA runs the private port, unlike in other jurisdictions, RTA had a responsibility to the people of Kitimat to report promptly to the public the conditions on the waterfront. Corporate public relations cannot just be sending out news releases with “good news.” That means that RTA public relations should have used its corporate Twitter account which usually sends out a news release every few weeks, to keep Kitimat updated on a minute-by-minute basis. If RTA communications staff in Kitimat do not have access to the RTA corporate Twitter account, they should establish their own local Twitter feed.

Both in 1964 and in 2012, the tsunami that came up Douglas Channel was minimal. But we know that this region does have a record of major quakes and that Douglas Channel has also experienced major landslides that can, in some circumstances, trigger a tsunami without an earthquake. The next few years will be seeing more industrial development along Douglas Channel which can also bring other hazards to the Kitimat region. While there are always communications breakdowns in situations like happened on Saturday, it is clear that the Kitimat emergency communications system needs a major upgrade to make sure the public is informed quickly and accurately of what is going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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