BC asks municipalities to “clarify” earthquake and tsunami response

Update:B.C. modifies, enhances emergency notification process (Official news release)

CBC: New tsunami warning protocol rolled out in B.C.

EmergencyInfoBC Please be advised that @EmergencyInfoBC is the only authorized emergency alert feed for Gov’t of BC.
Tweet Thu 8 Nov 11 48

The British Columbia Solicitor General’s department is asking northwest municipalities to “clarify the initial response actions” to the October 27 2012, magnitude 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii and the resulting tsunami warning.

A covering letter to municipalities from Lori Wannamaker BC Deputy Solicitor General says the province is reviewing the response to the earthquake and tsunami and is “seeking input from affected community leaders.” The package includes a letter sent to Emergency Program Coordinators across British Columbia, adding: “Input will be sought in an endeavour to hear from those directly impacted as a measure of enhancing our operations and response,” adding. “Events like present all levels of government with a learning opportunity.”

In the main letter to the municipalities outlining emergency procedures, the department also offers a time line of its response to the incident.

Clarify the initial response actions

The package sent to municipalities by Rebecca Derlinger, Assistant Deputy Minister /Fire and Emergency Management Coordinator, opens by saying: “The earthquake/tsunami event on October 27, 2012 demonstrated the high level of emergency preparedness that has been undertaken by local governments in BC. Elected officials and emergency managers in all impacted communities deserve praise for a timely and effective response that was undertaken, including evacuations.”

But in the next paragraph the letter goes on to say: “Prior to the completion of the provincial debrief process, we would like to clarify the initial response actions of local government emergency management personnel including how information should be managed after an earthquake that impacts BC.”

The letter also says that “Local governments must complete a hazard risk and vulnerability analysis for their communities according to the Emergency Program Act and regulations, keeping in mind that all parts of British Columbia have a risk of earthquake impacts. Coastal communities have the added risk of tsunami.”

The letter then outlines three scenarios for various communities

  • Significant earthquake is felt in a community located in an area with tsunami risk
  • Earthquake is not felt, however, a community is located in an area with tsunami risk (teletsunami)
  • Earthquake is felt in a community that is not located in area that has tsunami risk

In all three scenarios it says Emergency Management BC “will provide the general public with ongoing situational awareness through:

  • EmergencyInfoBC blogsite
  • Social media such as Twitter
  • Mainstream media (press conferences and releases)

For areas such as Kitimat, which is in a possible tsunami zone, the letter advises “Local governments should undertake the following emergency response activities immediately following a significant earthquake (do not wait for official notification)

  • Activate their local emergency response plans and if deemed necessary
  • Active local first responders
  • Undertake public alerting and initiate evacuations of low lying areas
  • Open an emergency operations centre in a safe location
  • Report to EMBC
  • Ensure ongoing public messaging to their citizens
  • Gather information to develop situational awareness

For areas that don’t feel the earthquake, the province recommends

Local governments should undertake…emergency response activities immediately following the receipt of a West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre (or WCATTWC) and/or EMBC notification of a potential tsunami event. It then calls on local emergency officials to follow the same procedure outlined above “if a notification indicates an increased risk of a tsunami (warning or advisory only)

As you can see from the Twitter profile, Emergency Info BC works during normal office hours, Monday to Friday unless there is a declared emergency

The warnings October 27


In the letter the province outlines a time line of how the emergency system worked on October 27.

It says the provincial Tsunami Notification plan was activated at 8:10 pm. October 27, approximately four minutes after the earthquake.

In a provincial acronym soup it then says

The EMBC (Emergency Management BC) Emergency Coordination Centre initiated an internal resource request to activate the PECC (Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre) and the PREOCs (Provincial Regional Operations Centres).

EMBC and Temporary Emergency Assignment Management System (TEAMS) staff were in attendance at PECC and PREOCs by 8:33 pm.

“Based on the initial bulletin from WCATTWC, social media staff sent out a message via Twitter” at 8:48 pm At that time EMBC regional offices began contacting communities with potential tsunami risk by telephone. “Subject matter experts from Natural Resources Canada and Canadian Hydrographic Service were contacted by PECC at 8:30 pm and at 9 pm to review the information received from WCATWC.

“Based on these discussions, the PENS (Provincial Emergency Notification) was initiated at 9:05 while efforts to make contact with those communities under tsunami warning continued.

At 10:45 pm a media conference call was held by the Minister of Justice.

The letter continues to say that conference calls were held with EMBC, US state emergency management offices, and the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre hourly until the final cancellation of the west coast warning by WCATWC at 2:47 am Sunday morning and by the province at 3:03 am

It concludes “Staff responsible for social media were actively engaged in informing the public.”

Denlinger’s letter then goes on to note that the provincial debrief will include “a discussion on the information flow from the province to emergency management stakeholders and the public (for example the use of social media as a communications tool for public awareness of the event)… This information….will assist in the creation of a provincial after action report and in the enhancement of subsequent provincial earthquake and tsunami response plans.”

How warnings worked on November 7

 

Earthquake November 7

Earthquake Nov. 7, 2012 (USGS)

On November 7, 2012, the US Geological Survey reported a 6.3 magnitude earthquake took place at 6:01 pm. Pacific Standard Time off the west coast of Vancouver Island, 186km (116mi) south southwest of Port Hardy.

At 6:06 I received an automatic text message from the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre
Tsunami Info Stmt: M6.3 085Mi SW Port Alice, British Columbia 1802PST Nov 7: Tsunami NOT expected #WCATWC

At 6:07 I received an automatic tweet from Canadaquakes : @CANADAquakes: Automatic detection of seismic event: magnitude 4.4 – 7 Nov 18:01 PST – PORT HARDY, BC region

At 6:15, I received the WCATWC message on Twitter that I had received 9 minutes earlier via text
Tsunami Info Stmt: M6.3 085Mi SW Port Alice, British Columbia 1802PST Nov 7: Tsunami NOT expected #WCATWC

@EmergencyInfoBC retweets the WCATWC message

At 6:27 Canada quakes updated their tweet with corrected information: @CANADAquakes: EARTHQUAKE Mag=6.3 on 07 Nov at 18:01 PST. Details : http://t.co/OL9RTPKC 101 km SSW of Port Alice, BC

@EmergencyInfoBC retweets the CANADAquakes message

Analysis The province didn’t get it

Tweets from Emergency Info BCRead between the lines of the Solicitor General’s letter and a couple of things stand out. While at first the officials say things went fine according to procedures in the book, events appear to show that in practice, the system didn’t work as well as expected on the night of October 27.

First the province, reminds municipalities of that they “must complete a hazard risk and vulnerability analysis for the communities.”

Second, while EM BC social media staff were, according to the letter, “were actively engaged in informing the public,” there was actually scant evidence of that during the crucial first 90 minutes after the earthquake on Haida Gwaii. While the emergency coordination officials and bureaucrats apparently were well informed about what was happening, the public was not. As I pointed out in an earlier post, differences between the US and Canadian warning systems contributed to the confusion. As well there was a problem on both Twitter and Facebook of rumour, misleading and false information being posted on social media during that crucial 90 minutes.

The line about the “the use of social media as a communications tool for public awareness of the event” is a clear indication that not all went well with the EM BC Twitter feed the night of the Haida Gwaii earthquake.

While Emergency Info BC is a sort of blog, again you have to know to go there and it is only active during an emergency. There were no posting on the night of the earthquake and tsunami. The last “blog” was during the Johnson’s Landing landslide evacuation in July 2012, and even that doesn’t give much information. Looks like Emergency Info doesn’t understand that a blog entry that says “no danger, nothing much is happening” is just as important as evacuation instructions.

The main website is Emergency Management BC,  with a link to the Info site—if there is an emergency—not exactly a prime example of web design for someone in a hurry, whether an official, the media or the public, since it was what the web calls “brochure ware.”

The first indication of whether or not there would be major danger to the BC coast on Oct. 27 was at Langara Island at 9:16 pm. Local officials in northwest BC were monitoring Langara and the relatively low surge indicated–at least at that time– that danger was not as great as feared. Yet it was only seven minutes earlier that EM BC activated the Provincial Notification Program at 9:05, and that was an hour after it was known that the earthquake was 7.7 in magnitude, which had the potential for catastrophic damage. The tweets that I saw about the small surge at Langara, came from Prince Rupert. It is in a situation like the Langara monitoring that the Emergency Info blog would have been relevant.

The need for constant official updates is clear. Earthquakes do not work 8:30 to 4:30, Monday to Friday. The province has to be able to activate emergency notification much faster. If a web journalist whether working for the mainstream media or a responsible individual on a small site can tweet or post in seconds, usually working from a home office or even a smart phone, emergency officials can do the same.

In these days, travel by government officials is often frowned upon. A couple of months from now, when New York and New Jersey have recovered from the Superstorm Sandy and this weeks Nor’easter, a visit from BC emergency officials is in order to see how it is done.

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