Skip to main content

No emergency text alerts? Questions surround lack of fire warnings in Shuswap

Share

A growing number of residents in the North Shuswap area are voicing concerns that that they did not receive emergency text alerts from the AlertReady emergency notification system as an exceptionally aggressive fire swept toward their communities, trapping some while others narrowly escaped with their lives.

Some living in the Scotch Creek, Celista, and Swlax area had urgent notifications around 2 p.m. on Friday, August 18, through the Alertable app widely used across British Columbia. But it appears no one received the distinctive broadcast-intrusive alerts through AlertReady that come with a distinctive klaxon buzz and vibrate as they’re received by most phones LTE or 5G networks. 

Pelmorex, the company that runs the software, tells CTV News that they “successfully processed the wildfire alerts” and are “not aware of any distribution issues,” while the Ministry of Emergency Management says the texts were issued to the Skwlax te Secwepemculecw (Little Shuswap First Nation) at 4:06 p.m., the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District at 7:48 p.m. and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District at 8:12 p.m.

The Bush Creek East fire, previously also known as the Lower East Adams Lake fire before the two fires merged into a 43,000 hectare megafire, has damaged or destroyed 168 structures. Fire officials say it was a rare rank-six fire, which they call a conflagration.

CTV News asked the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District about the gap between the evacuation order through the Alertable app, which has to be downloaded and the alert region specified, versus the AlertReady texts, which are automatically sent through 5G or LTE networks in a geographical area.

“We didn't send (AlertReady) until later in the day and we'll look at how we're going to integrate with the AlertReady system in the future, if we're going to engage it earlier,” said CSRD emergency operations centre director, Derek Sutherland. “This is our first use of AlertReady. This is a fairly new system for us, just rolled out last summer, and I think that we're getting more comfortable with using it.”

B.C. SLOW TO ADAPT TO ALERT TECHNOLOGY

British Columbia has been the slowest province to adapt to using the emergency alerting system. During the 2021 atmospheric river and heat dome events, officials were roundly criticized for having a poor grasp of the technology, which was only authorized for tsunami alerts at the time.

They changed the policy last year to allow for extreme heat warnings as well as wildfires, and have used it several times for amber alerts.

In 2019 and 2020, B.C. didn’t issue any emergency alerts, and Canada-wide 175 were sent by other provinces for issues ranging from tornados to drinking water warnings to civil emergencies (typically police incidents). This year, the province has facilitated 25 alerts, all but two for wildfires, compared to 296 in Alberta (half for wildfires), 183 in Manitoba and 243 in Ontario (mostly for tornadoes). https://www.alertready.ca/alert-count/#2023

LESSONS LEARNED

Sutherland described the process of drafting the wording and planning for the AlertReady message as time-consuming, with four people working with provincial officials to get it out.

The CSRD and Ministry of Emergency Management are both looking into why so many people report they didn’t receive the message on the day the Lower East Adams Lake fire consumed 22 kilometres of land in half a day.

CTV News was in and out of evacuation alert areas and saw several checkpoints for evacuation order zones. At no point did our crews receive an emergency alert that we were approaching an order zone. Pelmorex says the technology is cellular-enabled and can be programmed for a set time. For example, travellers approaching a washed-out road or wildfire and entering the warning zone could receive a text message describing the emergency and where it applies, so that even if they weren’t there at the time it was first issued, they could be aware of the danger.

In an email, a Pelmorex spokesperson emphasized, “Older cell phones that operate exclusively on non-LTE or non-5G networks will not get an alert.”

CTVNews.ca Top Stories

opinion

opinion Why 'paying yourself first' is the key to a comfortable retirement

One of the most effective retirement savings strategies is to pay yourself first. In his personal finance column for CTVNews.ca, Christopher Liew outlines strategies for consistently saving and investing over time and building a solid nest egg.

Stay Connected