Use of emergency alerts under scrutiny again after Nova Scotia floods

Click to play video: 'Officials call for improvements to emergency systems following devastating N.S. floods'
Officials call for improvements to emergency systems following devastating N.S. floods
WATCH: While the province continues to work through the damage caused by last weekend's heavy rainstorms, some are wondering if communication can be improved. As Callum Smith reports, an opposition MLA suggests that the word "unprecedented" won't stand up for long if more severe weather events persist. – Jul 27, 2023

Questions are being raised about the time it took to issue an emergency alert during the devastating flash floods in Nova Scotia last week.

Heavy rain, which began Friday, dumped between 200 and 250 millimetres along Nova Scotia’s South Shore, across the Halifax area and into central and western parts of the province, prompting massive floods in some areas.

Three people — two children and a 52-year-old man — were killed after vehicles became submerged early Saturday morning in the West Hants area, and the search is ongoing for a missing youth.

While it was clear an emergency was underway by Friday afternoon – with torrential downpours, thunder and lightning, and roads already underwater – it took until 10 p.m. that night for the province to issue an emergency alert warning people to stay off the roads.

Click to play video: '‘He held onto me so tight’: The remarkable rescues from Nova Scotia floods'
‘He held onto me so tight’: The remarkable rescues from Nova Scotia floods

In Halifax, the municipal alert system hfxALERT remained silent until 5 p.m. the following day – prompting criticism from the volunteer-run Twitter account HRMFireNews, which tweets out fire and emergency updates throughout the city.

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“It has been shared with me that they started using it *last night* at 5 pm,” HRMFireNews tweeted Sunday. “This is more than 24 hours into the incident and after not using it at all during the Tantallon fires.”

A thread posted to the Halifax subreddit around 9:30 Friday night, which attracted more than 100 upvotes and comments, posed the question: “Why no emergency alert about flooding?”

“(HRMFireNews) has dozens of reports of people being trapped in vehicles, waiting for rescues on the roofs of vehicles, trapped in flooded buildings,” the post said.

“The situation is very dangerous and unpredictable, and even more dangerous now that it’s dark outside. Shouldn’t an emergency alert warning people of the dangers of the roads and flash flooding all over the place have been sent out at least a couple of hours ago at this point?”

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An emergency alert was issued in Halifax Regional Municipality about a half hour later, prompting further criticism in another thread.

“Timely as usual. Two hours after the storm tapered off, five hours after people were getting stranded in their cars on the road,” one reddit user wrote.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia mourns deaths of 2 children from flash floods'
Nova Scotia mourns deaths of 2 children from flash floods

Several more alerts and evacuation orders would be issued throughout the province overnight and into the next day, including in Hants and Lunenburg counties.

Halifax councillor Lisa Blackburn, whose district includes the hard-hit areas of Middle/Upper Sackville, Beaver Bank and Lucasville, said she understands peoples’ frustrations, but noted emergency alerts are issued by the province, not the municipality.

“What we do is in the emergency management centre, we collect the information, we give all that information to the province with regards to flooding and road closures within the HRM, and then the province takes that away and makes the decision on when, or if, to issue any emergency alerts,” she said.

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Blackburn – who herself tried to go out Friday only to return home after floodwaters reached her car door – said she’s curious to know when the decision was made to issue the alert.

“The evidence was there very early on that there was a problem,” Blackburn said. “I would certainly be interested in the timeline of when (the province) got the information and when the alert was issued.”

Click to play video: 'Minister Masland on Road Repair Across the Province'
Minister Masland on Road Repair Across the Province

She added that it’s important for the municipal and provincial governments to be in contact with each other during an emergency event.

For example, she said the municipality did not know ahead of time that a state of emergency would be called, until Premier Tim Houston announced it during a news conference on Saturday.

“That’s an instance where information could have been shared ahead of time so we can prepare for it,” said Blackburn.

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“When a state of emergency is declared, there are certain steps that municipalities have to take, so that heads-up is always better for everybody.”

The state of emergency has since been rescinded.

Use of emergency alerts

In a statement, Emergency Management Office spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said the emergency alert was sent at 10:04 p.m. following a request from HRM officials, and the provincial coordination centre was activated at 10:30 p.m.

“When NSEMO receives a request from a municipality it responds quickly to get the information out. We are in frequent contact with municipalities and make them aware of the alert protocols and requirements,” the statement said.

“This is key when incidents occur and municipalities are determining when to request an alert. The content and timing of those alerts would be determined by the municipality.”

She said when major incidents happen, a debrief is done to “understand the impacts and make improvements for the future events.”

“The use of the Alert Ready system will certainly form part of those discussions,” she said.

Click to play video: 'N.S. police can now issue their own emergency alerts'
N.S. police can now issue their own emergency alerts

The use of emergency alerts was previously under the microscope in the aftermath of the 2020 mass murders in Nova Scotia, when an emergency alert was not issued during the gunman’s 13-hour rampage which left 22 people dead. Instead, the RCMP provided updates through its Twitter account.

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Public communication about the emergency, and lack thereof, was criticized in the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report, released in March of this year. While police did not have direct access to the emergency alert system at the time, they failed to request an alert from the Emergency Management Office until shortly before the gunman was killed.

Police services in Nova Scotia were given direct access to the emergency alert system in July 2021.

Communication can ‘definitely be improved’: HRM emergency manager

Halifax does have its own municipal alert system, but only those who sign up ahead of time receive alerts. While hfxALERT aims to warn people about emergency events, the only flood update came Saturday evening, and it wasn’t used at all during the recent wildfires.

Erica Fleck, director of Emergency Management for the city, said when the program was launched in 2019, the “full intention” was for use in emergency situations – but she said there aren’t enough staff to use it to its full potential.

“Have we been using it as much as we can, or should? Absolutely not,” she acknowledged. “But that’s just staff bandwidth.”

In a statement, the municipality said there are currently “several” people with access to hfxALERT for both external and internal purposes, but did not provide a specific number.

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Fleck noted that the provincial emergency alerts reach a larger number of people because they are pushed to cellphones, while hfxALERT is only for those who sign up.

She said Halifax Regional Council recently voted in favour of creating a vulnerable persons registry, which would help keep track of vulnerable people during an emergency event.

Click to play video: 'Halifax councillors vote to develop a ‘vulnerable people’s registry’'
Halifax councillors vote to develop a ‘vulnerable people’s registry’

The registry would involve hiring a vulnerable person co-ordinator, who would also help run the hfxALERT system, Fleck said.

“So we will be using it much more … we just never had the staff to be able to do that,” she said.

Fleck was unable to say when exactly she first got in contact with the province as the whole event was a “complete blur.”

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“It was coming so fast, and nobody was ready for what we saw,” she said.

Like Blackburn, Fleck agreed that communication at all levels is crucial during an emergency event.

“In any crisis event, communication is the most important thing that we need to do, and it’s often the one thing that kind of slides a little bit, which is not good,” she said.

“We always take our lessons learned and look at those. So communications can always be improved at every level – whether that’s staff, different levels of government, with the public – there’s always room for improvement, every single time.”

An abandoned car in a mall parking lot is seen in floodwater following a major rain event in Halifax on Saturday, July 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

John Lohr, the minister responsible for emergency management in the province, said the provincial coordination centre was responding to requests from municipalities when the alerts were sent out.

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“In the context of what was an extraordinarily confusing situation … I think all of the emergency service providers just did an outstanding job of dealing with, really, what was an unprecedented event.”

“In terms of how the (provincial coordination centre) responded, I’m satisfied we turned those requests around as quick as we can.”

Lohr added that municipal, provincial and federal coordination centres work very closely together to respond to emergency events.

“I think the issue was just responding to what was an entirely unprecedented situation that was not predicted in the forecast,” he said. “It was such an unprecedented and fast-moving situation.”

Fairbairn, the spokesperson for the Emergency Management Office, would not say how much time elapsed between when the province received requests from the municipalities, and when the alerts were actually issued.

“When an alert is requested, we do what is necessary to get the message out to Nova Scotians as quickly as possible,” she said. “Further details are not available.”

Cellphone coverage

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston also said spotty cellphone coverage “remains an issue” following reports that some people in the hard-hit Hants County area did not get alerts on their phones.

“It’s something I’m concerned about, and I’m certainly not happy about the progress to ensure that there’s cellular coverage across the province,” he said. “There’s lots of work to be done.”

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Houston said he’s had “significant discussions” with Develop Nova Scotia about what can be done to improve cellular coverage and hopes to see some quick movement on that.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, NDP leader Claudia Chender said the recent storm highlighted the “failure of our cell system across the province.”

“We’ve heard from so many people who literally were in fear of their lives and couldn’t make a phone call, and didn’t get the alerts,” Chender said.

“It’s clear from both this and the fires that we still have a ways to go in improving our emergency alert system, particularly given the black zones both for cell and internet that we have in this province.”

Braedon Clark, the Liberal MLA for Bedford South, said while no one predicted this level of storm, these major events won’t be “unprecedented for long.”

“We need to have a system in place in this province so that the moment these events happen, people get the information they need,” he said.

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