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B.C. Tries To Examine Earthquake, Tsunami Response As 'Learning Opportunity'

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The British Columbia Solicitor General's Department is asking northwest municipalities to "clarify the initial response actions" to the magnitude 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii on Oct. 27, and the resulting tsunami warning.

The package includes a letter sent to emergency program co-ordinators across British Columbia, adding: "Input will be sought in an endeavour to hear from those directly impacted as a measure of enhancing our operations and response." It adds, "Events like present all levels of government with a learning opportunity."

CLARIFY EARTHQUAKE, TSUNAMI RESPONSE

The package sent to municipalities by Rebecca Derlinger, assistant deputy minister /Fire and Emergency Management co-ordinator, opens by saying:

The earthquake/tsunami event on October 27, 2012 demonstrated the high level of emergency preparedness that has been undertaken by local governments in B.C. Elected officials and emergency managers in all impacted communities deserve praise for a timely and effective response that was undertaken, including evacuations.

In the next paragraph the letter says: "Prior to the completion of the provincial debrief process, we would like to clarify the initial response actions of local government emergency management personnel including how information should be managed after an earthquake that impacts B.C."

It goes on to state: "Local governments must complete a hazard risk and vulnerability analysis for their communities according to the Emergency Program Act and regulations, keeping in mind that all parts of British Columbia have a risk of earthquake impacts. Coastal communities have the added risk of tsunami."

The letter then outlines three scenarios for various communities:

  • Significant earthquake is felt in a community located in an area with tsunami risk
  • Earthquake is not felt, however, a community is located in an area with tsunami risk (teletsunami)
  • Earthquake is felt in a community that is not located in area that has tsunami risk.

In all three scenarios it says Emergency Management BC will provide the general public with ongoing situational awareness through:

  • EmergencyInfoBC blogsite
  • Social media such as Twitter
  • Mainstream media (press conferences and releases).
For areas such as Kitimat, which is in a possible tsunami zone, the letter advises "Local governments should undertake the following emergency response activities immediately following a significant earthquake (do not wait for official notification):
  • Activate their local emergency response plans and if deemed necessary
  • Active local first responders
  • Undertake public alerting and initiate evacuations of low lying areas
  • Open an emergency operations centre in a safe location
  • Report to EMBC
  • Ensure ongoing public messaging to their citizens
  • Gather information to develop situational awareness.

For areas that don't feel the earthquake, the province recommends:

Local governments should undertake... emergency response activities immediately following the receipt of a West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre (or WCATTWC) and/or EMBC notification of a potential tsunami event. It then calls on local emergency officials to follow the same procedure outlined above "if a notification indicates an increased risk of a tsunami (warning or advisory only).

BREAKING DOWN PROVINCIAL ACRONYM SOUP

In the letter, the province outlines a timeline of how it responded on Oct. 27. It says the provincial tsunami notification plan was activated at 8:10 pm., approximately four minutes after the earthquake.

In a provincial acronym soup it then says:

The EMBC (Emergency Management BC) Emergency Coordination Centre initiated an internal resource request to activate the PECC (Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre) and the PREOCs (Provincial Regional Operations Centres).

EMBC and Temporary Emergency Assignment Management System (TEAMS) staff were in attendance at PECC and PREOCs by 8:33 p.m.

Based on the initial bulletin from WCATTWC, social media staff sent out a message via Twitter" at 8:48 p.m. At that time EMBC regional offices began contacting communities with potential tsunami risk by telephone.

Based on these discussions, the PENS (Provincial Emergency Notification) was initiated at 9:05 while efforts to make contact with those communities under tsunami warning continued.

At 10:45 p.m. a media conference call was held by the justice minister.

The letter continues to say that conference calls were held with EMBC, US state emergency management offices, and the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre hourly until the final cancellation of the West Coast warning by WCATWC at 2:47 a.m. Sunday morning and by the province at 3:03 a.m.

It concludes: "Staff responsible for social media were actively engaged in informing the public."

READ BETWEEN THE LINES

Denlinger's letter notes that the provincial debrief will include "a discussion on the information flow from the province to emergency management stakeholders and the public (for example the use of social media as a communications tool for public awareness of the event)... This information ... will assist in the creation of a provincial after action report and in the enhancement of subsequent provincial earthquake and tsunami response plans."

Read between the lines of the solicitor general's letter and while at first the officials say things went fine according to procedures in the book, events appear to show that in practice, the system didn't work as well as expected.

First the province reminds municipalities that they "must complete a hazard risk and vulnerability analysis for the communities."

Second, while Emergency Management BC social media staff were, according to the letter, "actively engaged in informing the public," there was scant evidence of that during the crucial first 90 minutes after the earthquake on Haida Gwaii.

While the emergency co-ordination officials and bureaucrats apparently were well informed about what was happening, the public was not. As I pointed out in an earlier post, differences between the U.S. and Canadian warning systems contributed to the confusion. There was a problem on both Twitter and Facebook of rumour, misleading and false information being posted on social media during that crucial 90 minutes.

A longer version with details of the Nov. 7 earthquake can be found on Northwest Coast Energy News.