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Misinformation rampant as B.C. public safety minister downplays alert system used everywhere else in Canada

Vancouver -

As misinformation spread on social media and at official press conferences, British Columbia’s public safety minister struggled to defend why the province continues to reject a powerful communication tool widely used in emergency situations across the rest of the country. 

The government’s use of the Alert Ready system has been under scrutiny since the atmospheric river caused widespread destruction with little warning, but the issue came to a head Tuesday evening when an urgent warning to evacuate the Sumas Prairie came with traditional door-to-door evacuations, but no emergency text alerts. 

“We didn’t want to alarm the whole city,” insisted Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun. “It was our decision not to activate the provincial Alert Ready system for the whole city of 162,000 people at that time as we wanted to directly contact the 300 people who live in Sumas Prairie.” 

The public safety minister expressed similar reservations about using the technology, which works on smartphones on LTE or 4G networks. 

“What you're going to be doing is in fact broadcasting to a larger area and (causing) the potential for panic and putting strain on emergency resources, which are working overtime and round-the-clock to deal with the situation,” said Mike Farnworth.

But that’s a misrepresentation of how the Alert Ready technology works; one that was echoed online by people who speculated and repeated rumours that the entire province would need to be alerted. Such assumptions are likely fueled by bi-annual, province-wide testing that sends an identical message from the U.S. to the Yukon borders. 

"(Designated emergency officials) determine the area,” said Martin Belanger, director of public alerting for Pelmorex.

“It could be a city block, it could be a region, it could be the entire province," Belanger said. “Any cell tower that covers that selected area will be triggered and send the emergency alert out, which means other people in the area may receive the alert because the cell tower may cover a larger footprint." 

While there is some potential for spillover to unaffected people, Belanger said urban areas have enough towers that the message remains fairly localized, explaining that the content of the message should specify exactly what the issue is and where, allowing people who receive the alert to determine whether they’re affected. 

Alerts remain active in the geographically defined area for as long as the administrator wants, which means approaching vehicles can get an instant notification of high risk of mudslides ahead before road crews even have time to arrive.


Alert Ready software is available across the country and Pelmorex publicly provides detailed information about where and how it’s used. Since 2019, there have been 475 emergency text alerts issued in Canada, across every province except B.C. Other provinces have sent alerts for natural disasters like floods, wildfires and tornadoes, as well as for amber alerts, drinking water emergencies and civil emergencies that include police incidents. 

Alert Ready suggests even more applications for warnings of imminent harm, including industrial fires that cause a risk to human health, terrorist threats and dangerous animals, but emphasizes it’s up to provincial and municipal officials to decide when and how to use the system and build their own templates for messaging.

EmergencyInfoBC currently only has protocols in place for limited consideration of the service, so that “the system will only be used in the event of a potential tsunami, an Amber Alert or a civil emergency.” 

Despite a six-month period that saw heat dome that killed 595 British Columbians, dangerous and disruptive wildfires and a fire that wiped out an entire town, a tornado at UBC, and now widespread flooding and mudslides that trapped or displaced thousands of people, the province has rejected the option each time, and even downplayed its usefulness.

“There's no doubt about it, British Columbia does not have weather emergency preparedness at the level it needs to be at now for the events we are obviously dealing with, which are going to happen with more frequency and greater devastation," said Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.

“We have to be able to move much more quickly than we currently can and we have to be able to warn people in advance of these things about things that are coming and what to do about it."


Farnworth both insisted government experts were “completely surprised” by the ferocity of the rain and downplayed the value of the emergency notification system altogether.

“If you're on the Coquihalla highway at 120 kilometres an hour or where there's no cell coverage, an alert-ready system is not going to be of assistance," he said

Farnworth’s most controversial comment came as he gave a timeline for limited use of Alert Ready, more than three years after the technology was green-lit for use.

“It has a place and it is one tool and we've indicated we want to have a system in place next year in the central Interior,” said Farnworth. “But we have to make sure that it works in compatibility with existing systems that are in place, that you're not overlapping and you're avoiding duplication."

The public safety minister did not elaborate on why over-communicating by using the current government communications strategy (of posting social media notices, DriveBC alerts and road signs) in addition to the emergency alerts would be undesirable in an emergency situation. Top Stories

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