B.C.'s minister for public safety is asking cities to do more to keep their citizens in the loop as fire departments close down access to radio channels which the media has historically used to inform the public about emergencies.
Mike Farnworth told CTV News he values the better technology that the upgraded radio system has – but says delays like the one that would have happened during the railyard fire in his riding of Port Coquitlam in January should be avoided.
"We need to let the local media know immediately. They should be on the first list of calls," Farnworth said.
"To me it would be that they’re notified the same time a city can confirm an event, and they know that first responders are on the way and police have been notified. If there’s an issue around public safety then obviously it’s important that the media are notified as quickly as possible."
He was reacting to a CTV News investigation that discovered big delays in telling residents near an enormous blaze would have been delayed by around 35 minutes if media weren’t able to listen to fire department communication, hear about the disaster, and inform viewers and readers through multiple channels.
It’s not the only time official news of a major event has been delayed. The official word of the enormous crash on the Coquihalla Highway last week came at 9:16 a.m. – some 13 hours after it happened. It took the Richmond RCMP four days to tell the public about a fatality at a Richmond trampoline park, leaving some customers unaware of what happened.
All of those events would have generated discussion on first responder radios, which have been monitored by media across North America for decades. Police agencies have often been the first to encrypt communications to avoid criminals listening in.
Some fire departments have followed suit, though some, including the City of Toronto, have left communications open as they include discussion of major events.
In the Lower Mainland, E-Comm is the agency that handles 911 communications. The agency has chosen to encrypt all communication, though did not mention this in its main press release regarding the project.
Fire departments have said E-Comm said the only option was encrypting all channels, even though cities like Toronto use the same system.
E-Comm board member and Vancouver City Councillor Raymond Louie said another reason to encrypt is the potential that private details will be relayed through the scanners.
He said there are other ways the public can be informed.
"We have a number of systems in place already. Through social media. Through an app," he said. "There is no life safety issue related to this change."
The City of Vancouver’s VanConnect app does have the ability to notify users, but less than a tenth of the population has downloaded it.
And that app doesn’t co-ordinate with any of the other apps offered by other cities like Richmond and Surrey, meaning that a user needs multiple apps on his or her phone to be sure to hear a message.
In April, cellphones in Canada will be capable of getting direct warnings from authorities. It’s a system similar to the one that warned Hawaii about a missile attack earlier this year.
"The challenge is you need to have your phone on. If your phone is off, you’ll need an alert somehow," said Farnworth.
The minister said he doesn’t expect E-Comm to delay the rollout of its encrypted radios. But he wants to make sure agencies are using every way they can to inform people in an emergency.
"Apps are important, but at the same time, it could be sirens, going door-to-door, social media, the media, whether it’s television or radio. All of those forms are a key component of informing people when there is a situation and they need to evacuate," he said.
Use the slider below to view which municipalities will be going silent following the upgrade, and which will remain accessible.