The earth shook and Justice Minister Shirley Bond listened. When a magnitude-7.7 earthquake struck off Haida Gwaii on Oct. 27, British Columbians got a real-life taste of the way the province's emergency system works. For many, it was confusing - not because provincial officials necessarily did anything wrong, but because the rest of us expected something we didn't get.
Bond announced Monday that B.C.'s emergency system will make changes to reduce the confusion.
The quake hit at 8: 04 p.m., and the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre put out a tsunami warning three minutes later. Most people didn't hear anything from Emergency Management B.C. until about 9 p.m., including some communities that could have been threatened by a tsunami.
EMBC staff said they did their jobs, concentrating on notifying the communities most at risk, then alerting the others later. That makes sense on one level. It also makes sense that individuals and communities have to take responsibility for their own safety, rather than waiting for a higher government to tell them what to do.
The best rule is still the simple one: If you feel a quake that lasts longer than a minute, head for higher ground right away.
However, things are not that simple when a quake strikes and a tsunami is possible. As in this case, many people will not feel the quake, but they will learn about it from radio, TV or one of many social-media feeds. Then the question is: What do I do?
That was the question that people on the coast faced on Oct. 27. They heard about the quake, but didn't know if they were in danger.
It's the question that we hope will be addressed better the next time around with Bond's changes to the notification system. Under the revised plan, when EMBC gets a notice from the tsunami centre, it will immediately email it to a list of local authorities, first responders, media outlets and others.
It will follow up with notices on Twitter and other social media channels, as well as phone calls to the communities most in danger.
These changes will be even more important when the U.S. National Weather Service changes its notification system in a month. It will no longer send email and other alerts to most local authorities, emergency responders and the public. They will have to subscribe to a service from another provider, but there is no information yet on that provider.
Educating the public on what to expect is an important part of making the warning system work, but emergency planners have to remember that many people, both residents and visitors, might not see or remember any educational materials. Any notices must be clearly understandable by anyone who might be affected, without any advance preparation.
For instance, a tsunami "information" from the province was elevated to an "advisory" at 10: 24 p.m., more than two hours after the quake, for the north and central coast, the northern end of Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Island - from Jordan River to Greater Victoria, including the Saanich Peninsula. The email alert did not include any explanation of how an advisory is different from a "warning," nor any instructions about what to do or not do.
It was a notice from the City of Victoria at 11: 09 p.m. that explained people should stay away from the water, but should not evacuate buildings.
As they test changes over the coming month, B.C.'s emergency managers must keep that experience in mind. People need information to make sensible decisions. Even if the information is: "You're in no danger."
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