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Lessons From The Quake: Kitimat Needs Better Emergency Communications Than Faxes

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COLOMBIA EARTHQUAKE
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As a 7.7 magnitude earthquake hit off Haida Gwaii shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, I was at the Haisla Recreation Centre as the Haisla Nation marked the return of the G'ps Golox totem pole.

Like a boat being lifted by gentle waves, the Rec Centre began to quietly roll up and down, then the rolling seemed to accelerate just a bit. I realized that it was an earthquake. As I told CBC's Ian Hanomansing later in the evening, I've been in a number of earthquakes, and for me at least, this quake at Kitamaat Village, the rec centre was not shaking as badly as in some of the others I have felt.

However, the subsequent events of the evening show that the emergency communication system in Kitimat -- the end site of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and at least three planned LNG plants -- needs immediate improvement.

CELL SERVICE

Cellphone service at the village is poor and after the rolling stopped neither myself nor my Kitimat Daily colleague Walter McFarlane was able to get "bars."

As a former network producer for both CBC and CTV I have handled a large number of earthquake stories from around the world over the past quarter century (sitting at a desk, I should add). With that experience, I was hoping to get a cell hit at the village so I could bring up Twitter.

I already subscribe to the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian earthquake alert feeds. The US and Canadian computers automatically report earthquakes within seconds of detection and send out a Twitter bulletin as the same time as those computers are alerting their human masters. If I had been able to get cell service I would have known within minutes that the Haida Gwaii earthquake was a major event. (I did follow the alerts from my computer once I got back to Kitimat itself).

Recommendation 1: Cell service in Kitimat, Kitamaat Village, and the harbour area must be upgraded as soon as possible. Telus has applied to council to erect a new cell tower here. Given the events of the past 24 hours, District Council should make sure that all parts of the District of Kitimat and the Haisla Nation have proper cell coverage no matter what service one subscribes to, not just for the convenience of subscribers but for emergency situations.

AUTOMATIC ALERTS

With experience, one knows that in a situation such as Saturday night, the official websites such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center as well as Natural Resources Canada are often overwhelmed. That is why media use RSS feeds, Twitter feeds and email alerts.

It is also important to realize that these organizations have their own language and procedures. It appears that a lot of the confusion on Saturday came from misinterpretation of the various Canadian and U.S. warning systems.

Recommendation 2: If Kitimat emergency services are not familiar with how the U.S.-based earthquake and tsunami centres work, they should be trained in those systems, simply because the Americans are well ahead of Canada in these areas. The U.S. alerts go out by computer automatically and are constantly updated. As Saturday night showed, they're often quicker and farther ahead than the Canadian systems.

Once I was back in Kitimat, it was clear that communications were breaking down, and this was at a time the tsunami warning was still active. There were numerous messages on Twitter and Facebook from residents of Kitimat either trying to find out what was going on or retweeting/reposting rumours including one that the Kildala neighbourhood was being evacuated.

I am told that residents were calling the RCMP to ask what was going on. This was another breakdown since North District headquarters in Prince George handles all police services in this region and were likely busy with quake calls on Haida Gwaii. Information calls in Kitimat that should have been handled by an emergency services public communications person were being handled the Mounties.

There were reports that one man was going door to door in Kildala telling people to evacuate. Whether this person was well-intentioned but misinformed, or a imposter intent on mischief doesn't matter, there was an information vacuum.

It was clear from Twitter that other districts and municipalities were using that service to spread official information. (I don't follow other areas on Facebook so it is unclear if information was being posted on Facebook. There was certainly no official presence from Kitimat on Facebook Saturday night.)

FAXING INFORMATION

It appears from reports in the Kitimat Daily and tweets about the Northern Sentinel that Kitimat emergency services was sending information out by fax. While faxing information was an advance in the 1980s, faxes are obsolete in 2012. Many major newsrooms no longer use fax machines after being inundated by junk faxes and after they laid off all the editorial assistants who have cleared those fax machines (even by the late '90s most faxes were dumped in the garbage unless the EA had been told to look for a specific missive).

Though it is now more than two years since I returned to Kitimat and I regularly freelance for Global, CBC and The Canadian Press, I had no contact from anyone in emergency services. Also, I don't have a fax machine.

Recommendation 3: The District of Kitimat must immediately bring its emergency communications into the 21st century, with Twitter accounts, a Facebook page and an emergency email or text message plan for media and other officials who can get the messages.

A number of jurisdictions already use text messages for emergency alerts at various graduated levels: official, media, public. When the main means of communication today is social media, an emergency organization can no longer follow outdated procedures. It must be on social media immediately especially when it becomes clear that there is an emergency -- as we are seeing with all the official tweets with the Hurricane Sandy crisis on the East Coast.

We know that this region does have a record of major quakes and that the Douglas Channel has also experienced major landslides that can, in some circumstances, trigger a tsunami without an earthquake.

The next few years will be seeing more industrial development along the waterway which can also bring other hazards to the Kitimat region. While there are always communications breakdowns in situations like happened on Saturday, it is clear that the Kitimat emergency communications system needs a major upgrade to make sure the public is informed quickly and accurately of what is going on.

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