The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami alert for the B.C. coast at 2:06 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23. (Keili Bartlett / BlackPress)

The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami alert for the B.C. coast at 2:06 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23. (Keili Bartlett / BlackPress)

Cell-phone alert system goes live for future tsunami warnings

A new tsunami alert system is now live across B.C.

Part of a national system of radio and TV alerts called Alert Ready, it can push tsunami evacuation alerts directly to compatible smartphones, no sign-ups required.

“I think this is an overdue step,” says Jennifer Rice, the local North Coast MLA and B.C. parliamentary secretary for emergency preparedness.

Rice said such systems are already in use elsewhere — many Haida Gwaiians first heard about the technology back in January, when a false missile alert was sent out to smartphones across Hawaii.

So long as the phone is on, connected to an LTE cellular network, compatible with wireless public alerting, and in the affected area, tsunami warning alerts will appear much like a text message with an alarm sound. But unlike texts, the alerts are free, and they actually use a separate channel from regular texting.

Existing emergency alert systems will stay in place, including Haida Gwaii’s new ePACT system.

RELATED: Emergency alerts system goes island-wide

Until next year, Emergency Management B.C. will only use Alert Ready phone alerts for tsunami warnings. A test alert is also planned for May 9 at 1:55 p.m.

“We want to make sure we work out all the glitches in our first year,” Rice said.

“It has to be a really critical, imminent event where timely response is actually needed or useful,” she added. Alert Ready will be used to broadcast tsunami warning alerts, where people are told to evacuate, but not tsunami watches or advisories.

According to a December survey of 1,206 people in B.C., only 30 per cent had a “grab and go” emergency kit in their house, and just 13 per cent had a complete emergency response plan.

Earthquakes were listed as the top concern by two-thirds of people who answered the survey.

“My big take-away from the survey is that we need to put some energy into our public education campaigns,” said Rice.

While everyone is motivated on days like January 23 — the most recent tsunami warning for B.C. — Rice said it can be hard to keep tsunami preparedness top of mind. Much of the planning is left to local governments, who often have several pressing issues to juggle.

“It doesn’t reassure people when I say this, but Haida Gwaii is really advanced compared to some of the communities I know,” Rice added, commending recent planning work by Haida Gwaii’s all-islands emergency planning committee.

“I feel reassured knowing there are so many local leaders turning their minds to this, taking steps, and not putting it aside for things that seem more urgent.”