TORONTO — The possibility of an incoming nuclear warhead from a country such as North Korea does not appear to be a major concern for Canadian emergency management authorities, according to government information available to the public.
The weekend fiasco in Hawaii, where people spent 40 minutes expecting an incoming strike based on an erroneous alert, has highlighted a preparedness gap in Canada, where references to a nuclear attack are conspicuous by their absence.
Nor does Canada yet have the kind of system that helped quickly spread the faulty alert — attributed to someone pushing the wrong button.
“A nuclear warhead or missile attack? No, we don’t have the system, so an error couldn’t occur,” said Darryl Culley, president of a company that offers emergency preparedness training to governments and organizations. ”In the past two or three decades, we really haven’t seen any investment into a type of warning system for an attack.”
Canada does have systems aimed at alerting the public to impending large-scale threats — mostly a wide range of natural disasters such as fires, floods and other severe weather events. Nuclear emergencies are mostly confined to worries about radiation releases from a power plant.
Current systems rely largely on TV and radio for disseminating warnings to the public and do not yet include full-scale text messaging to cellphones, although the federal telecommunications regulator last April mandated wireless-service providers to implement such alerting by this spring.
“This decision allows alerting authorities and their partners to work toward providing Canadians with public alerts in both official languages on their mobile devices that will help them to take immediate action to protect themselves and their families,” the Public Safety Ministry says.
“As the system expands to include the participation of cellphone companies, social media websites and other internet and multimedia distributors, even more Canadians will be alerted to emergencies that could affect their safety.”
Some smartphone apps do currently exist through which warning messages can be sent. People in Ontario can also subscribe to a text-based “Red Alert” system.
Governments have also developed nuclear-emergency plans, mostly devoted to outlining levels of authority and responsibility for responding to a threat but decisions and criteria regarding protective actions are normally within provincial or territorial jurisdiction.
It’s a far cry from the heights of the Cold War, when now decommissioned bunkers and air-raid sirens were common — Edmonton alone had almost 70 sirens until 1996 — and school children were routinely taught to “duck and cover” under their desks in case of an incoming missile.
“We don’t talk about that (nowadays),” said Fred Armbruster, executive director of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum And Archives. “Back in the Cold War, civil defence emergency preparedness was all about that.”
Back then, Armbruster said, governments routinely sent out literature on how to build bunkers, what to do if a siren sounded, how to protect oneself. These days, he said, education is absent about a threat he said has grown with the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Most current emergency advice turns on listening to suggestions or orders from officials in whatever format they might be delivered. Protective measures could include evacuating an area or sheltering in place, depending. Information on what concrete actions people should take in case of a nuclear disaster — however incurred — are vague.
Generic advice in cases of radiation exposure, according to various government agencies, includes taking iodine pills to minimize effects on the thyroid; closing outside doors, windows and air exchangers; discarding contaminated clothing in sealed plastic bags; and showering.
“It is recommended to shelter in the basement or on middle floors, away from the walls or roof, of a multi-storey building,” Ontario’s recently updated emergency plan states.
Large structures such as schools, shopping centres or other commercial buildings with concrete walls generally provide greater radiation protection for sheltering-in-place than do most people’s homes, the Ontario plan indicates.
Given the power of modern nuclear warheads, Culley said, protecting yourself in the event of a strike is likely wishful thinking.
“We provide warning systems so that people can take action (but) if it’s a nuclear warhead, for the most part, there’s not a lot of action that the average person can take,” said Culley.
Armbruster, however, said education and specific guidance on protecting yourself from the initial heat wave and radioactive fallout could definitely help survive a nuclear attack — short of a direct hit.