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Smoke billows from a wildfire near Osoyoos, B.C., on July 19.TWITTER @DylanGaleas/Reuters

B.C. emergency officials have yet to use Canada’s direct-to-cellphone alerting system to warn the public about major threats, despite an unprecedented, week-long heatwave in which hundreds of people died, followed by severe forest fires that razed the village of Lytton and led to the evacuation of thousands.

Statistics show British Columbia is the only province never to use the system – known as Alert Ready – since jurisdictions across Canada got access to its cellphone-alerting technology three years ago. Municipal managers have expressed concern because the province is holding the system in reserve for a tsunami to the exclusion of all other threats. By comparison, emergency officials in neighbouring Alberta have used Alert Ready more than 70 times since 2019 – including 25 times for wildfires.

Canada’s national alert system has been criticized because provinces have different standards about when alerts should be sent and for what.

Emergency officials across Canada got the technology to send direct-to-cellphone alerts to all devices within a specified area in mid-2018. This tool vastly expanded the reach and immediacy of warnings once sent out only through televisions and radios. Yet whether alerts are sent at all depends on how provincial officials calibrate threats.

In B.C., it was not deployed earlier this month for a fire that raged through Lytton, killing two people. It also was not deployed during the heat wave when more than 800 unexpected deaths were recorded between June 25 and July 1, when temperatures peaked at 49.6 C, four times as many unexpected deaths as usual.

The minister in charge of Emergency Management BC acknowledged the Alert Ready system should no longer stay silent.

“It’s clear we need to better prioritize the expansion of the Alert Ready system in B.C.,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

He acknowledged Alert Ready has capabilities the province’s warning systems lack. Only the national system’s technology can commandeer the air waves to make “broadcast intrusive” warnings pop up on all TVs, radios and cellphones in an area at once.

The B.C. government reserves Alert Ready for one kind of natural disaster threat. “Currently, Emergency Management BC will only use Alert Ready to notify of a potential tsunami,” the province says on its emergency website.

EMBC would not respond to questions on why Alert Ready is reserved for tsunamis. The department also said it would not make any of its officials available for an interview.

“B.C. is actively examining what role broadcast intrusive alerting systems could play in notifying the public of other events beyond tsunamis,” EMBC spokesman Jordan Turner said. He added that police in the province can use the system to alert the public about active shooters. No such alerts have been issued yet.

After years of failure by federal and provincial safety ministries to agree on a national alerting system, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2009 ordered telecom companies to create a common alerting channel that could be used across the country.

But the CRTC could not direct how the system is used because emergency management is a provincial responsibility. The federal government has passed no laws shaping the system, pays no money into it and does not oversee operations. Provincial emergency-management organizations (EMOs) run their systems as they see fit.

The consequences of a lack of clear and uniform guidelines became clear in Nova Scotia last year, when authorities unfamiliar with the system struggled to craft an Alert Ready message about a gunman in a fake RCMP uniform and driving a replica cruiser. Communications between the provincial EMO and the local RCMP broke down. Police instead issued warnings on Twitter. Twenty-two people were killed in 13 hours during Canada’s deadliest mass shooting.

The 25 forest fire warnings issued in Alberta since 2019 account for the vast majority of the 30 forest-fire warnings issued across Canada in that span. (The AlertReady website only records statistics back to Jan. 1, 2019.)

Records show most of Alberta’s 25 wildfire alerts were issued on behalf of counties, towns and First Nations. Emergency officials in the province say they take pride in helping smaller communities warn their citizens about danger.

“Public safety always trumps everything else,” said Tim Trytten, who recently retired as the Alberta government’s team leader on alerting. He added that Alberta also has other alert systems and they reinforce each other.

“Minutes matter,” he said. “If you can give people a heads up to have a truck full of gas, and they have their pills, their passports and their photos ready to go – then you can be ready to move.”

The B.C. government says its role in alerting often amounts more to rebroadcasting on its websites what communities put out about natural disasters.

“Local authorities in B.C. have the responsibility to provide emergency notifications to their residents for all hazards,” EMBC’s Mr. Turner said. He added that “the province amplifies all evacuation orders and alerts issued by local communities.”

But some municipal managers say their lack of access to Alert Ready has forced a patchwork system.

Daniel Stevens, Vancouver’s director of emergency management, said B.C. cities and towns are buying their own alerting systems and software, but the capabilities are limited: People must sign up to get the phone alerts, and such systems leave out people who are not residents of the area, such as commuters, truckers and tourists.

“People will need to download an app or subscribe in some form,” Mr. Stevens said. “We can’t have the mandatory push that goes and interrupts TV and radio and sends messages to cellphones. That’s wholly controlled, 100 per cent, by the province of B.C.”

Also concerning, he said, is people may incorrectly believe their cellphones will alert them about emergencies in B.C. The province has used Alert Ready “for annual tests, which is giving the public the impression that this is an operational system.”

“I don’t consider it operational beyond for tsunami alerts – which is what they have have continuously said they’re using the system for at this point. But I do not believe that is well understood in the public,” Mr. Stevens said.

Records show B.C. officials once hoped to issue a broad array of warnings.

Years ago, when the CRTC asked organizations across Canada whether there was a need to build systems facilitating direct-to-cellphone alerting, EMBC and other provincial departments said such capabilities would be sorely needed for all manner of calamities.

“The province would see issuing a wide-area intrusive alert for events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, flooding, or major hazardous material events,” reads the B.C. government’s CRTC submission in 2016.

The document added that the long-term plan was to “allow key stakeholders to access the alerting system in their jurisdiction.”

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