The City of Port Alberni is learning how to better communicate emergencies to the public via social media after they “dropped the ball” on issuing alerts online after Tuesday morning’s tsunami warning.
Port Alberni residents were alerted of a tsunami warning when sirens rang through town just after 3 a.m. after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake occurred at 1:31 a.m. 280 km off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska.
The city had very little information about the tsunami alert, or where to evacuate to, on their website, Facebook page or Twitter feed.
“We clearly fell down in terms of communicating with the public via social media,” said city CAO Tim Pley. “People have an expectation to get real time information on social media platforms and clearly we dropped the ball on that. This is clearly something that we can’t continue not to do, the public demands it and we’re going to fix it. ”
Emergency Info BC was directing people to check local government websites for specific information, and telling people not to call 911.
REMINDER: please don't call 911 for info/updates on the #tsunami warning. Check your local gov't websites, social media channels, etc for info specific to your community.
— Emergency Info BC (@EmergencyInfoBC) January 23, 2018
Pley said although online communication from the city was lacking, they did “a great job in other ways.”
“We communicated with barriers on streets for no entry, we communicated with a tsunami warning system to evacuate thousands of people successfully, we did a lot of things to communicate,” he said. “We communicated with the province non-stop through Emergency Management BC and with the ACRD.”
In addition, Pley said the city did well in communicating updated warnings live on The Peak radio station.
“That’s been the practice in Port Alberni for many years, to tune into CJAV – now The Peak—so maybe older residents in the community are used to that,” Pley said.
The city did not contact the Alberni Valley News with updated warnings, although the newspaper carried up-to-date information on its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts starting shortly after 2 a.m. and continuing until close to 7 a.m.
Pley said emergency preparedness or the operation of an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) is not a service the city provides, but rather the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District ( ACRD) does.
“Communication is a function of the EOC in a community or local government,” Pley said. “It wouldn’t make sense necessarily for the city to run its own EOC because we recognize working together with the regional district makes better sense for the community.”
But people still turn to the city first for emergency information.
“It’s not enough for us to say the regional district does that, go see them…at the very least we need to have clear links to the regional district information or we need to replicate it on our own platforms,” he said.
Doug Holmes, ACRD CAO, said he first got the warning at 1:52 a.m. through a phone call from Emergency Management BC. After speaking with Pley, Holmes said they agreed to immediately open the EOC. The EOC kept in constant contact with Emergency Management BC to determine when to trigger the tsunami warning system.
“At the end of the day it came down to a timing thing,” Holmes said. “We knew we had a certain amount of time—a number of hours (before a tsunami would hit) and we did not want to squander that time but it’s a very serious consideration to get the public out of bed. We don’t take the decision lightly to turn the sirens on.”
Holmes said with the information they were receiving from the province they made the decision to sound the sirens just after 3 a.m.
As for posting to social media, Holmes said the ACRD stuck mainly to re-tweeting Environment Canada information after they made the determination to sound the sirens.
“The ACRD does not have a large Twitter following and so the types of things we are going to do (to improve communication in emergency situations) is see to what degree we can partner up with community organizations that have larger followings,” Holmes said.
The ACRD has not had an emergency operations manager since August, which Holmes said is concerning and would have been helpful to have in Tuesday’s situation.
“We’ve never had a full time [emergency operations manager] here before,” Holmes said. “It becomes a question of how to get the best value for the taxpayer but make sure the service is intact and that’s exactly what the board is considering right now. We expect to learn more about that in the coming days.”
Port Alberni city councillor Chris Alemany said the city needs to improve their communication via social media in emergency situations.
“I think in all honesty the social media presence from the city was pretty non-existent, unfortunately. We didn’t have any tweets go out and there was only a very small amount of Facebook posts,” he said. “I do think that there was information flowing between the city and the radio (The Peak) which seemed to be where most people were getting their information so that was good. I think there’s definitely places for improvements, especially on the social media end.”
He said the public reaction was excellent.
“People reacted to the siren and that’s what most people would hear first anyway, especially at that time,” he said.