The Fraser Valley’s patchwork of emergency alert systems

There is no one consistent system for sharing emergency alerts in the Fraser Valley, with some communities relying on social media or word of mouth.

In late June, as smoke billowed from the Mckay Creek wildfire along the Fraser River near Lillooet, people who could see the plumes of smoke began to wonder when they might be asked to leave their homes. What happened next exposed BC’s uncoordinated patchwork of emergency alert systems—and the fact that many cities, including several in the Fraser Valley, still have no such systems in place.

Evacuations can happen in mere minutes at any time of the day or night. On June 29, the residents closest to the Mckay Creek blaze were put on evacuation alert at 7:38pm. Less than 3 hours later, those same people were ordered to leave their homes. Others nearby began preparing for the possibility they too would have to leave their homes.

The Mckay Creek wildfire threatened residents in 3 different jurisdictions: 2 regional districts and the District of Lillooet (which itself is located within one of those districts). Written evacuation alerts and orders issued by the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District were read not only by those in that region’s electoral areas, but also by residents in neighbouring jurisdictions. The SLRD alerts directed people to download that regional district’s app, but residents in the District of Lillooet (which is within the region but responsible for its own alert system) and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District were directed, through different messages on different accounts, to download a separate app.

The situation left some confused, but at least the residents closest to the Mckay Creek fire could download an emergency alert app—once they figured out which one was appropriate. Most of the pieces were already in place, and Lillooet had set aside money a year earlier to commission an alert system. Downriver, in the Fraser Valley, many municipalities do not appear to have seriously considered the need for such an emergency alert app .

Phone apps aren’t perfect, but mass notification systems can audibly cause a device to ring, allowing authorities to directly and instantaneously contact thousands of people across huge areas. That can be helpful, since evacuation orders can happen in the middle of the night, with no prior notice over large areas. BC, of course, does have a mass notification system—you are likely familiar with its tests. But it is currently limited to only Amber alerts, some police emergencies, and tsunamis. If a dike breaks or a nearby forest catches on fire, don’t expect it to ring out in alarm. For now, municipalities and regional districts have been left to commission their own systems.

Wildfires that impact residential areas are not as common in the Fraser Valley as they are in the Interior. But their likelihood is increasing as the climate warms, and The Current has reported on the high long-term wildfire threat in many of the area’s forests. Evacuations can also be required for other emergencies like landslides and floods, including those that can occur with little to no warning.

But in the Fraser Valley at the moment, only the Fraser Valley Regional District and the City of Mission have the ability to tell residents to evacuate using an app—in the case of the FVRD, that government is only responsible for evacuations within its rural electoral areas. The FVRD and Mission each use the Alertable app, which can audibly notify users in case of an evacuation and override a phone’s silent mode. In the FVRD, there are already 2,459 area subscribers to the app. (Hope is also moving toward using the app.)

The city apps of both Chilliwack and Abbotsford can push emergency notifications to phones, but such alerts are little different than a standard social media notification. In the event of an evacuation, spokespeople for both municipalities told The Current that they plan to rely on local media, social media channels, and, potentially, door-to-door knocking to communicate with residents. Of local municipalities surveyed by The Current, only Hope indicated plans to use such a mass notification system in addition to traditional means. A City of Langley spokesperson said Metro Vancouver is considering an integrated approach to such a system. And the Township of Langley did not provide an answer by press time.

As for the cost of such a system: the FVRD says the Alertable app costs it about $3,000 each year. That is about 1/1,700th what the City of Abbotsford spends on information technology services every year.

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