After a storm swept through Ontario and parts of Quebec killing 11 people, the efficacy of Canada’s emergency alert system is being called into question. When asked by reporters at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction if Canada’s emergency alert system is working as well as it could be, Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety of Canada acknowledged that alerts should be sent out quicker, provide more detailed information, and be issued to all residents consistently. “The very simple and straightforward answer is no. I think there need to be improvements,” Blair said.
Many people took to social media to express their frustration with the alert system because they were caught off-guard by the storm either because the lead time between when the alert was issued and when the weather hit was short, or in some cases, they didn’t receive an alert at all.
Alert Ready is designed to send critical and potentially life-saving alerts so that people can make informed safety decisions. Alerts are sent through television, radio and LTE-connected wireless devices. The system was developed through collaborative efforts by federal and provincial governments, emergency management officials, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Pelmorex, broadcasting services and wireless service providers.
Trent University history professor Janet Miron says she did not receive an alert for her area. The night before, Miron saw the Weather Channel was forecasting rain and possible thunderstorms. While she did receive an alert for the Temagami region, which is several hours away, she did not receive one for Peterborough. “I need to receive alerts so that we can take appropriate action and seek shelter,” Miron explained. “I would much rather err on the side of caution in these cases. Those alerts are absolutely critical for safety, well-being, and life.”
During the storm, Miron was not able to reach her children, who were several kilometres away. “It was a very dangerous situation. I could not even contact them,” she says. “Even a five or 10 minute alert beforehand would have been enormously helpful,” she says.
After speaking with her neighbours, she learned that they also did not receive an alert. “It looked like a trauma scene [outside], where my neighbour, who is a nurse, attended to people with open fractures, and a seven-year-old boy who was struck by a falling tree.”
Environment Canada stated that a severe thunderstorm watch was issued at 1:09 p.m. and a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 1:20 p.m. in the Kawartha Lakes region. The radar reveals that the storm reached the area approximately 15 to 20 minutes later. For the Ottawa region, the severe thunderstorm watch was issued at 11:19 a.m. and the severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 3:18 p.m. The storm touched down 15 to 20 minutes later. Details for other regions will differ.
According to Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Environment Canada cannot control when the alert is received as dissemination depends on the network.” However, he says, “given some of the feedback that we have received, there’s going to be a review to see if there are any kind of changes that can or should be made.”
Out of the 11 people who were killed as a result of the storm, 10 were hit by falling trees including Joanne Labelle, 64, who was camping on a friend’s property, Chad Convery, 44, who was visiting a cottage, and Ian Fraser and Robert Hayami who were both golfing at the time. A woman, 51, drowned after the pontoon boat she was on capsized.
How do the alerts work?
Flisfeder explains that tornado alerts are sent any time a forecaster believes a tornado is in progress. For severe thunderstorms, alerts are sent out when winds reach 130 kilometres per hour or more, or if hail reaches seven centimetres in diameter or more.
Thresholds were determined based on, “climatology information across Canada, in conjunction with some building codes (to determine what certain structures could withstand). It was an engineering and climatology decision,” he says.
For thunderstorms specifically, Flisfeder recommends seeking shelter in the most stable environment, away from windows and having a reliable information source like a weather radio, as cell service is not always available. Further safety information can be found through Public Safety Canada.
It is also important to, “check the forecast on a regular basis,” he says.