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Emergency Management B.C. ups efforts on tsunami warnings

Charles Bingham heads back home with his cats after a tsunami warning was canceled early Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, in Sitka, Alaska, following a magnitude 7.5 earthquake.

James Poulson/AP

Emergency Management B.C. is being lauded for improvements in its reaction time to Saturday's 7.5-level earthquake, which struck off the coastlines of Alaska and B.C.

Last year in October, the emergency service was criticized for its laggardly response to a 7.7-magnitude quake: Their tsunami warnings were issued 39 minutes after the U.S.-based West Coast and Alaska Tsunami and Warning Center sent out their advisory.

But on Saturday, only 11 minutes passed before Emergency Management B.C. issued a tsunami warning via Twitter, a "phenomenal" response time according to Executive Director of Operations, Chris Duffy.

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Warnings are sent to the public when the threat of a tsunami exists and the travel time of the presumed wave to any portion of the B.C. coast is believed to be under three hours, according to Emergency Management B.C.'s website.

Cindy Warren, 48, of Prince Rupert, B.C. said at first she thought the earthquake on Saturday was just a truck going by.

"If you've ever been on a moving sidewalk – you know how it kind of undulates up and down – that's what it felt like," said Ms. Warren, adding that the earthquake only lasted about 30 seconds. "It freaked our dog out more than it freaked us out!"

In response to the earthquake, Emergency Management B.C.'s Twitter feed was in heavy use Saturday, with multiple tweets being made per hour to give updates on the status of the tsunami.

The company relied on micro-blogging site during the October earthquake as well, said Mr. Duffy, but staff were more "quick to the gun" this time around.

"With each response, we do a debrief or an after-action review and work to a continuous improvement cycle," he said. "We're always looking to learn and improve."

Emergency Management B.C.'s efforts have also helped elevate earthquake knowledge among citizens, said Mr. Duffy, though notifying British Columbians can be quite a complex process.

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As Mr. Duffy described during a phone interview, West Coast and Alaska Warning Center will first notify Emergency Management B.C.'s 24/7 emergency coordination centre.

From there, the staff will make sure the information spreads through social media and that the provincial duty manager, who tapes a voice recording for the provincial emergency notification system, is informed.

Staff members will then make their way to different operation centres, which was done within minutes on Saturday, said Mr. Duffy.

Still, not all residents of B.C. are impressed.

Bonnie Webster of Aldergrove, B.C. remains unhappy with province's way of handling things.

While she does not live in the tsunami zone, she said many places in the province – including Vancouver and Port Alberni – are susceptible to earthquakes, and that a better system needs to be put in place.

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"My concern is that unless you have a Twitter feed going or you're listening to the T.V. or something, you don't really hear anything," she said in a phone interview. "I just figure we can do better because, you know…one of these days it's going to be serious and we have plenty of time to practice."

Mr. Duffy, however, is confident that the system in place is an efficient one.

"As long as I'm seeing information going out the door that's reaching the media and social media within minutes – and that local authorities are being phoned by our regional operation centres quickly, again, in minutes – then I'm satisfied," he said.

He added that Saturday's earthquake is a reminder that preparedness at the individual and family level is crucial.

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