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Peter MenziesThis week’s efficient Pacific coast tsunami warning may have reinforced trust in emergency notification systems just in time for Canada’s launch of text alerts.

People along the B.C. coast were awakened, and some evacuated, early Tuesday following a magnitude-7.9 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska. Within a few hours they returned, sleepy but none the worse for wear, when the warnings were called off as the tsunami failed to materialize in a harmful manner.

Just over a week previously, Japan’s national broadcaster misinformed people that their government had issued a J-Alert due to the possible launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea.

That followed on the heels of Hawaiians being erroneously notified of the imminent arrival of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In the latter two incidents, apologies were plentiful and recriminations abundant, and rightly so.

Accuracy in emergency alerting is no small matter. It’s critical that people can trust the accuracy of public warnings and then follow directions swiftly, as did those who fled their homes and vessels to find safe haven in the Tofino, B.C., community hall on Tuesday morning.

In an age of constant allegations of fake news, and in the wake of the Hawaiian and Japanese errors, the potential for life-threatening harm is very real if people hesitate in response to future legitimate threats.

Large numbers of lives can be saved (or lost) depending on whether and what warning systems are in place. For example, Canada’s first broadcast alerting system emerged in Alberta three decades ago, following the 1987 Edmonton tornado that claimed more than two dozen lives and left hundreds injured and homeless. Australia’s text alert system was developed in response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that took 173 lives.

Broadcast alerts were finally extended beyond Alberta to across Canada in 2015 and at last report are scheduled to be available via text in April of this year. That, along with the evolution of the national Alert Ready system, took place unprompted by tragedy. But it took years of incessant nagging, cajoling and creative regulating by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). In truth, Public Safety Canada displayed an unsettling disinterest in the matter.

People were alerted, including via text, in Japan in advance of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The earthquake alarm may have been sounded a mere minute in advance but those 60 seconds meant trains were stopped and factory assembly lines brought to a halt before the quake. And while the evacuation of areas under tsunami threat no doubt had its own price, the death (15,894) and missing (2,500-plus) tolls from a surge with run-up heights of 40 metres would have been far higher without advance notification.

The devil lives within the details, of course, and the rollout of the broadcast alerts unsurprisingly had its awkward moments, typically involving overenthusiasm – which is not a bad thing until people come to dismiss notifications as overwrought or irrelevant. This is one more reason why the system must remain limited to matters of imminent human peril – as was the case this week. That means strict limits on who has input and ongoing vigilance against those who would encumber it with foolishness such as lost pets and frost warnings.

The brilliance of text alerting – as opposed to broadcast and siren – is that it goes to citizens’ locations (and can know where you are) and delivers specified information. For instance, in the case of a fire, toxic fumes from a derailment, nuclear accident, active shooter, bombing or a tsunami, the alert could indicate – based on your location – in which direction you should move, allowing emergency services personnel to manage large crowds with more precision.

I don’t know if this facility will be part of the system Canada rolls out this year, but at some point in the near future, it will save lives. Perhaps yours.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who spent 10 years as a CRTC commissioner.

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