Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says he is considering changes to the way the national public alerting system works in the province, after a two-hour delay in the transmission of an emergency alert during deadly floods last month in the West Hants area.
Audio recordings of emergency radio communications in the hours leading up to the flooding revealed that fire officials pleaded repeatedly for an emergency alert, to warn people to shelter in place and stay off the roads. Shortly before an alert was finally sent, four people, including two children and a young teenager, died when water swept away vehicles they were riding in.
Currently in Nova Scotia, control over the emergency alert system is centralized with the provincial government, meaning the government alone has the ability to issue alerts for natural disasters, including flooding. Police have the ability to issue them for criminal matters. The alerts are sent directly to residents’ cellphones.
On Wednesday, Mr. Houston told reporters he is looking at decentralizing control of the province’s system, which would extend the power to issue emergency alerts to lower-level decision-makers, including fire officials and municipalities. Alberta and Saskatchewan have already decentralized their systems in this way.
“It’s incredibly important that the officials who have the eyes and ears on the ground, who are right there in the thick of it, that they’re listened to and respected and that they have proper training in issuing alerts if they’re the ones making those decisions,” Mr. Houston said. He added that officials would be meeting about the issue in the next few weeks.
The emergency alert system has been under scrutiny in Nova Scotia for the past few years. In April, 2020, when a gunman killed 22 people over 13 hours in a rural part of the province, the RCMP didn’t ask for an alert and the provincial government didn’t send one. It was after this that the province first gave police some ability to issue alerts themselves.
Five months ago, the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission, which probed the killings, recommended that Ottawa create federal standards for emergency alerts, and that the provinces and territories begin a joint review of the national public alerting system, known as Alert Ready. Currently, the system is a patchwork determined by individual provincial emergency management organizations.
The floods happened in the early hours of July 22, when West Hants, located about one hour northwest of Halifax, received the equivalent of about three months of rainfall in 24 hours. The first of several pleading calls for an emergency alert was made to a 911 dispatch centre from the volunteer fire department in the West Hants community of Brooklyn at 1:12 a.m. First responders were seeing washed-out bridges, inundated roads and vehicles swept away in torrential rains.
Brooklyn fire pleaded for an alert to tell people to stay off the roads and shelter in place.
First, the request was relayed to the RCMP. The Mounties, who do not handle natural disaster emergency alerts, relayed the request to the province’s emergency measures organization. But under provincial requirements, the request for such an emergency alert has to come from a municipality, and then the province decides whether to proceed.
West Hants chief administrative officer Mark Phillips was unavailable, so the province called his second-in-command. Finally, two hours later, at 3:06 a.m., the province issued the siren-like warning over cellphones.
The alert went out about half an hour after two vehicles were swept away by flood water on Highway 14. Among the people inside were the four who died: Terri-Lynn Keddy, 14; Nick Holland, 52; Natalie Harnish, 6; and Colton Sisco, also 6.
In an interview, Colton’s grandfather, Calvin Leggett, demanded the province immediately fix the bottleneck in issuing emergency alerts and resolve long-standing poor cellular service in the area, which prevented some people from receiving the alert.
“We need to be faster. … We’re not looking to put the blame on anybody. We just want to make it better,” he said. “And it shouldn’t take years, because we could have a storm next week.”
He added that he and his daughter, Tera Sisco, Colton’s mother, don’t believe an earlier alert would have saved the young boy. They are advocating for changes to prevent any other families from losing loved ones, he said. “We don’t have months to get this straight,” he added.
Colton’s father, Chris Sisco, previously told The Globe and Mail he didn’t know what difference it would have made if the province had sent out its first emergency alert earlier in the morning.
“If my phone would have went off a half-hour earlier, would we have got out? I don’t know. We might have,” he said. “It’s a what if. I guess we’ll never know.”
Wayne MacKay, a law professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said issues with sending alerts during the Nova Scotia massacre and the floods show the need for a decentralized emergency alert system in the province.
“Almost by definition, an emergency requires quick action,” he said. “There needs to be some degree of decentralization to allow these things to happen more quickly, otherwise you’re really defeating the purpose of an emergency alert.”
Dr. MacKay said another commonality between the massacre and the flood was inadequate education among officials about who has the authority to ask the province for an emergency alert.
New Brunswick’s former director of emergency management, Ernie MacGillivray, who also worked on the national public alerting system, said that in order to decentralize emergency alerts in Nova Scotia, operational policy would need to change, officials would need to be empowered and trained, and the public would need to be educated.
With a report from Molly Hayes