Residents took to Mount Tolmie early Tuesday morning after officials had issued a tsunami warning for coastal B.C. following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Alaska. Spencer Pickles/Black Press

Tsunami warning prompts Saanich to study emergency response

Should Saanich develop an alert system comparable to the existing system in the City of Victoria?

That is just one of several questions that a future meeting of Saanich’s public service safety committee will consider, as Saanich and the Greater Victoria region grapple with the aftermath of Tuesday’s tsunami warning following an earthquake off Alaska that reached a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale.

Residents across the region including Saanich expressed concern, if not outright fear, that their local officials failed to adequately inform them. While some residents received text alerts, many only heard of the warning, when they received early morning phone calls from friends and relatives, who were either living in other parts of British Columbia subject to the tsunami warning, or who were following the news on other continents.

Many (likely the majority of Greater Victoria residents) slept through the alert, unaware of the earthquake and the tsunami warning it triggered until they had heard from friends, or checked various news and social media channels.

This aspect has raised concerns about the region’s ability to alert residents in cases of natural or human-made emergencies.

A survey of the 13 municipalities in the Capital Regional District (CRD) shows six municipalities notify the public in the event of an emergency. They include among others Victoria and Sidney. Since Tuesday’s earthquake and tsunami warning, their respective systems have seen significant surges in sign-ups. Vic-Alert now has some 30,000 subscribers, up from 6,000 before Tuesday.

Saanich — the region’s largest community — lacks such a system though.

“Why Saanich doesn’t have its own alert system is a good question,” said Mayor Richard Atwell, who chairs the public safety service safety committee. “Why every community needs its own system is another question that needs to be understood and addressed.”

The committee also consists out of a council representative (Coun. Karen Harper), Saanich’s chief administrative officer, the fire chief, the chief constable, the director of engineering, and the emergency coordinator.

Capt. Maegan Thompson of Saanich’s emergency services program said Saanich has looked at options for a public notification system, but such systems have limits. “One thing is that they are subscriber based, and not all the people in the affected area,” she said.

This aspect has raised the question of whether the region should introduce a system based on sirens, similar to systems in more rural regions of the province, such as the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Speaking with the Saanich News Tuesday, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps cautioned against such a system in an urban region like Greater Victoria, because it could actually send people everywhere into a panic.

Emergency plans for various types of disasters rely on matching mathematical probabilities with geography. For example, Tuesday’s tsunami warning was of great concern to the three Saanich areas identified as a tsunami hazard zones: Cordova Bay, and Portage Inlet. But for the rest of Saanich — in fact, most of it — Tuesday’s tsunami warning would have been of a theoretical nature.

“A bigger question is how prepared are we in Saanich and the greater region,” said Atwell. “How will we fare if the earthquake happened on our doorstep instead of hours away up in Alaska?”

This said, failure to accurately share public information in a timely manner can have far-reaching consequences: see the recent panic in the U.S. state of Hawaii, where a state employee sent millions into panic after falsely warning millions about incoming missiles by pushing the wrong button.

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