Little Campbell River flows through Semiahmoo First Nation land into the bay.

Little Campbell River flows through Semiahmoo First Nation land into the bay.

Semiahmoo First Nation tsunami sirens cause concern

'Lack of communication' criticized by the City of White Rock; Semiahmoo First Nation says it alerted cities

Semiahmoo First Nation’s new mass tsunami siren system caused a moment of panic for some White Rock residents Thursday during its inaugural use, as a broadcasted voice message did not indicate it was merely a drill.

The wailing tone sounded for 90 seconds and was followed by a message that said “A tsunami warning has been issued for Semiahmoo Bay. A tsunami can cause dangerous flooding. You are at risk and must move to higher ground or inland now. Do not return until directed to do so. Tune into your local radio station for additional information.”

The City of White Rock – and Peace Arch News – received several calls from residents questioning the legitimacy of the 11 a.m. siren.

SFN band councillor Joanne Charles said the siren was part of a scheduled evacuation exercise of the reserve. Approximately 70 SFN community members participated in the event, and left their homes for higher ground as requested by the voice notification system.

White Rock fire Chief Phil Lemire said that although the emergency lines weren’t inundated with phone calls, residents were phoning the non-emergency lines, which is what emergency services prefer in this type of situation.

He said the phone lines at city hall were “going quite steady” for about 20 minutes after the sirens started.

Charles said SFN residents were aware of the evacuation exercise, and so was the City of White Rock.

Charles said SFN provided “adequate notification” to the City of White Rock about the testing, notifying a city official on about March 6 and again on March 14.

“Unfortunately, they did not heed our request to have that put on social media until after the siren went off,” Charles said.

Charles said SFN also notified the City of Surrey, Canada Border Services Agency, Whatcom County, BNSF, Emergency BC and partnered with the RCMP in locking down the community after it was evacuated.

A PAN reporter was emailed a news release – with details of the drill – from SFN the evening before at 10:05 p.m., however the email was not seen until the next day.

Thursday afternoon, the city issued a news release criticizing “the lack of communication provided by Semiahmoo First Nations.”

“The Semiahmoo First Nation informed the City of White Rock that the siren alerts would begin at 11:00AM with their Tsunami tone (wailing). However, they did not inform the City that their alarms would not include clear messaging that it’s a test or a drill only,” said the statement from city communications manager Farnaz Farrokhi. “As the alarms did not have clear messaging that this was a test, it caused residents to believe it was a real evacuation, particularly when they heard, ‘This is a tsunami warning, please vacate and get to higher ground or inland now, do not return.’

“We have communicated our concerns and re-emphasized the need for clearer communication with the City and the public in the future.”

A phone call and email to Farrokhi last week to clarify when the city learned of the drill and how many phone calls were received did not elicit a response by PAN press time Tuesday morning.

However, city manager Dan Bottrill told PAN the confusion would have been avoided if the voice mass notification system notified residents that it was only a test.

“Any time that you’re going to test an emergency broadcast system, you want to make it absolutely clear it’s a test and the reason for that is you don’t want to incite any panic,” Bottrill said Friday.

Mayor Wayne Baldwin said he isn’t sure if the siren warning system is necessary.

“We’re told by Environment Canada that the worst case of a tsunami for us is one metre of water. So I don’t know if that warrants having a city-wide tsunami warning,” Baldwin told PAN Friday.

A tsunami warning is one feature of the SFN emergency system. The notification system can also – with different siren tones – warn residents to vacate the beach and shelter-in-place.

“For our purposes for the exercise, it was a very successful exercise and drill for us. We are really proud and happy that we were able to have this event,” Charles said.

From now on, the SFN plans to test its mass notification system on the first Monday of each month, including all holidays, at noon.

The monthly testing will include a message that it’s only a test.