Opinion: Revelstoke officials need to clarify emergency response communications ASAP

In an opinion piece that doesn't pull punches, Revelstoke Mountaineer editor Aaron Orlando implores local emergency communications officials to modernize their outdated and inadequate emergency communications systems.

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Wildfire smoke creates a red glow as the sun sets on Revelstoke on July 14, a day when ash chunks and burnt needles rained down on the city. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

I am writing this in haste on an urgent deadline to communicate what I feel is a critical safety issue for the community, one that has been ongoing for too long and needs to be addressed with urgency.

Like most British Columbians, I was shocked, terrified and saddened by the wildfire disaster that destroyed Lytton, B.C., and claimed the lives of residents. It was a brutal reminder that we are living in a climate emergency that is only going to get worse over our lifetimes.

Immediately, it made me think of my role and responsibilities as the owner of a local media company in Revelstoke. When major incidents such as police, fire, or backcountry disasters happen, my phone starts ringing, my text starts beeping, and our web traffic spikes exponentially. People turn to us for real-time information during a crisis.

It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us and we’re happy to fulfill the role, but there’s a problem: civic safety authorities in Revelstoke do not communicate in real time, including police and fire services. Simply put, when things go down, most often nobody is available.

In a crisis, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Following the Lytton wildfire, I resolved to do my part to help better play my role to improve the system by voicing my concerns about communication deficiencies.

It’s something that’s been on my mind for years, and I have reached out many times to local emergency services officials for improvements, but with limited success.

I started with an inquiry to the City of Revelstoke last week, asking them to provide information on where residents can turn to find real-time information in the event of a major crisis.

For example, if a train car containing pressurized deadly gas tipped over and ruptured in the middle of the night in downtown Revelstoke, how would residents know what to do? Where do they go to find information?

Likewise, if a wildfire suddenly flared up in Arrow Heights in the dark of night, how will instructions on what to do be communicated? Where can we find it? How will we know?

Currently, the City of Revelstoke does not provide a communications contact person, this despite multiple recent requests from us for clarification on who the communications contact is for the city. They simply state to email a city communications email, but have refused to say who answers that email or who is responsible for communications. We have asked for a telephone number for the contact, but they have even refused to provide that.

This is important because the City of Revelstoke administers the emergency response system for the city and Columbia-Shuswap Regional District Area B, meaning this nameless person without a telephone number bears responsibility for communications during a crisis.

So, if a critical incident happened at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, the system in place is to email them and hope for a response. Maybe we’ll hear back on Monday morning?

Today, in response to our inquiry from last week and multiple follow-up emails noting the lack of a timely response, the city posted a statement on its website providing most of what we had asked for: a list of resources with hyperlinks where people can find information on disaster preparedness and real-time information during a crisis that requires action from individual residents.

Given the fire season this year, it would have been great if the city produced the communication on its own initiative, and we’ll point out that one statement posted to a social media page in response to a media question isn’t enough. The city needs to beef up its emergency preparedness communications. It requires sustained, comprehensive communications.

In our inquiry, we noted there was virtually no preparedness information on the Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services webpage, a page that is hyperlinked to the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District’s emergency page. That city website, which contains links to high-level planning documents, many of them outdated, continues to show little in the way of preparation information or links to any relevant real-time information.

In addition, and most troubling for me, the city media release stated that it will be providing information through the local media. It states: “During an emergency such as a wildfire, an activated EOC will push relevant information out to local and regional media such as Television (sic) stations, radio stations, and local print and online media partners.”

This statement is misleading. City emergency services do not “partner” with local media to provide real-time information. If they did, we’d have telephone numbers, email addresses, contact points, and hopefully some kind of protocol or information meeting where the system is clarified and explained, so everyone knows what to do. This is not the case now, and the city stating so is irresponsible. The city enacted the EOC centre during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and we did inquire about a contact person for the EOC, but city communications staff said to just contact them. So, send an email and wait for a response, maybe today, probably next week, or sometimes never.

Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services

Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services was celebrating 125 years of service on Canada Day.Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

In late 2020, I contacted the Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services’ Chief by telephone. During that conversation, I noted the lack of real-time information and urged him to get with the times and do something — such as taking to social media — to update the community on real-time incidents. I noted the lack of communication with the community and delays responding to requests.

In response, the fire chief began using Facebook to provide updates, but immediately stopped sending any information on incidents to us. There is no “partner”ship there.

After reading the statement from the city today, we contacted Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services and the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District to complain that stating that there was a communications system in place with local media is irresponsible, the fire chief said that the system would only kick into effect if an emergency was declared.

Revelstoke RCMP

The Revelstoke RCMP detachment building on Campbell Avenue. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

In late 2020, I set up a meeting with the acting detachment commander, Sgt. Chris Dodds, to discuss critical communication issues with the RCMP.

The story came in the wake of highly critical reporting on the RCMP detachment. I pointed out that the RCMP detachment was not using contemporary digital communications tools and was suffering the consequences. It was missing out on opportunities to promote safety and security and to communicate with the public it serves.

The Squamish RCMP detachment has an active and engaged social media system, and regularly post relevant social media messages. For example, after several kayakers had to be rescued from a river that was unseasonably high one day, they warned the kayaking community through social media to avoid the river due to dangerous waters, perhaps preventing another rescue or worse. This is just one anecdote about how getting with the digital times can save lives.

Sgt. Dodds later informed me that due to official language rules, and because Revelstoke is home to a Parks Canada office, all communications need to be done in both official languages. The translation time, I was told, can take days, meaning social media is not a practical tool for the Revelstoke RCMP.

(In my opinion, federal policy should change to prioritize safety over official language requirements, but that’s a whole other battle.)

There has been some improvement in communications channels with the RCMP, including establishing better communications protocols to reach them in the event of major incidents.

The bottom line

Wildfire smoke obscures Mt. Cartier in the distance on July 14, 2021. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Whether it’s attempting to ferret out local COVID-19 data, responding to the one or two major police incidents that happen here each year, or an interface wildfire, the public sometimes labours under the illusion that all the local reporter has to do is make a call and get the information. The reality is that there is often nobody picking up the phone and there is no established communications protocol in place. Even worse is dealing with obstructionist officials who waste your time by not providing information, more occupied with the potential political implications of what they say than just providing the real-time information that people expect these days.

Our activism on this issue in the past week has produced results, the first of which is the city’s media statement which we have summarized below. (We have left out the part that says the EOC will be pushing out info to the media, since we know that system isn’t in place in any adequate way.)

Although the government plays its part in coordinating, it’s up to you to be prepared for any eventuality.

So, here’s our best guide:

In the event of a local emergency, the city says it will be pushing updates through its alert centre. You need to sign up to the system to get alerts to your mobile phone. Here is the link to that system:

https://revelstoke.ca/AlertCenter.aspx

The city also sent out general links to information about emergency preparedness, mostly provincial or national sites. Here they are:

British Columbia preparedness information – Prepared BC

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/preparedbc

Government of Canada preparedness information – Get Prepared

https://www.getprepared.gc.ca/index-eng.aspx

Household Emergency Plan – Make your emergency plan

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/emergency-response-and-recovery/emergency-evacuees

Emergency Evacuee guidance – Evacuee Guidance

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/preparedbc/make-your-plan

Provincial information

https://www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca/

Emergency Management BC – EMBC

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery

BC Wildfire Service – web

www.bcwildfire.ca

Footnote:

Since I started writing this piece this morning, chunks of wildfire ash and burnt needles have started raining down on the city. People have been posting to social media and texting me with photos, wondering what’s going on. This is distressing to some, but there has been no media notification from authorities, a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the city’s security apparatus is active (and partnering with the media) to provide timely information. The city’s emergency notification system has been silent.

We will continue our activism on this critical issue for the community and post updates when improvements are made.