Emergency warning system can’t be trusted

On the way to Calgary in June, my car radio was suddenly interrupted with an emergency broadcast. It was an Amber Alert for a missing teenage girl allegedly abducted in Edmonton.

On the way to Calgary in June, my car radio was suddenly interrupted with an emergency broadcast. It was an Amber Alert for a missing teenage girl allegedly abducted in Edmonton.

Police were looking for a particular van and suspect. Thirty minutes after the alert was issued, the girl was found, in Edmonton as it turned out. The suspect was also later arrested. It appeared he may have abandoned the vehicle and girl once he knew everyone in Alberta was on the lookout for them.

What a great system — when it works. It’s needed so rarely thankfully, but when it is, it should work — otherwise, what’s the point?

Unfortunately, we can’t hold in trust that Alberta’s emergency public warning system will work when it should. Maybe a year from now, but not today. The tornado/funnel cloud that rolled through here on July 4 is evidence of that.

The Red Deer area made national weather news again with what turned out to be probably the most photographed funnel cloud in the history of mankind. Some amazing photos came out of what thankfully was mostly a non-event. Some trees were torn up and maybe $10,000 in property damage resulted just north of the city. If it’s determined by Environment Canada that it did touch down, it will officially be a tornado, albeit a minor one.

The storm’s damage wasn’t the most concerning part of this event.

The following Monday, we began to hear reports from some Red Deerians that the Alberta Emergency Public Warning System intended to warn of a possible tornado had failed. The emergency preamble sounded, followed not by a message, but by dead air space. As it turned out, the storm had knocked out a local communications tower, which led to 10 out of 25 radio or television stations receiving garbled bits of the tornado warning. The warning system’s failure was highly unusual, but maybe not unexpected.

In today’s high-tech world, it’s far from state of the art. It was instituted by the province back in 1987, after the Edmonton tornado. It’s purpose today is to alert Albertans when any of the following occurs: severe weather, flood, wildfire, hazardous material release, terrorist threat, or any other threats to human life or safety. It also delivers Amber Alerts, issued when a child goes missing.

The scary thing is that when the Pine Lake tornado struck nine years ago today, a full 13 years after Alberta’s emergency public warning system was established, people in Green Acres Campground were largely unaware that it was bearing down on them until it was too late. Twelve people died and more than 100 were injured. Environment Canada’s severe thunderstorm warning that day was upgraded to a tornado warning at 7:05 p.m. The tornado had struck at 7 p.m.

If nobody’s listening, warning systems are useless.

This May, the province announced it will upgrade its emergency warning system by mid-2010, from an aging analog system to digital. Satellite TV and radio, the Internet, and social media like Facebook and Twitter could be utilized to spread the word quickly. Alberta may prove to be on the leading edge in this.

The July 4 event was as good a time as any for the present warning system to fail. Virtually no harm was done, but now the public is a little more aware that part of being ready for an emergency is also being a little self-reliant, too.

We take it for granted that when emergencies strike, we will be alerted. Obviously that’s not the case.

Mary-Ann Barr is Advocate assistant city editor. She can be reached by email at barr@bprda.wpengine.com or by phone at 403-314-4332.

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