This is how the city's public notification system will look on mobile phones. (City of Burnaby)

Burnaby launching public notification system for emergencies

The city will be able to send out notifications for a variety of different types of emergencies, including major fires, flooding, and more.

By Dustin Godfrey | June 17, 2022 |5:00 am

The City of Burnaby is looking to add a public alerting system that would notify people of emergencies in the city.

The system will run alongside BC and federal public alerting systems, though it won’t have the capacity for “broadcast intrusive” alerts, as the two senior levels of government do.

That means alerts would not break through a phone’s silent mode, for instance.

City staff proposed using the Alertable app, which is also used by numerous other nearby municipalities, including Vancouver, Surrey, Port Coquitlam, Victoria, Bowen Island, North Vancouver city and district, Hope, and West Vancouver.

The city’s public safety committee heard this week that the Alertable system got a soft launch in Burnaby in May 2022, including a website presence, a booth at all four extreme heat cooling centre open houses, and a public safety committee presentation, along with word-of-mouth.

The full launch is slated for June 21, with a media release, social media posts, a posting on the city’s website, an ad in the Burnaby Now, and more.

Finally, this fall, the city plans targeted marketing for the system, particularly for “key incident areas,” including the neighbourhoods adjacent to the Trans Mountain Burnaby Mountain and Westridge Marine terminals, the Parkland Refinery, and the Fraser River.

Different types of notifications

Marie Ishikawa, director of marketing and corporate communications, said people can download the Alertable app on their phone, or they can sign up for email, text, or phone call notifications.

By downloading the app, people will be able to activate alerts only from Burnaby or receive alerts from all around the Lower Mainland.

“Or if my grandma lives in Winnipeg, I can choose to have alerts from Winnipeg,” Ishikawa said, also pointing to a “follow me” option where the app provides alerts for whatever city a user is in.

People will also be able to choose to receive only critical alerts or critical and advisory alerts.

Each alert will lead to the city’s page on the Alertable website, which will include a description of the emergency, a map showing the affected areas, and instructions for people to prepare.

Charmaigne Pflugrath, the city’s emergency management coordinator, told the public safety committee that staff engaged the public to fine-tune how and when to notify the public about issues.

In terms of alert types, Pflugrath said emergency orders and emergency alerts received the highest support among survey respondents. City disruption advisories, city service notices, city payment reminders, city general information, and city meetings and hearings received less support for public alerts, she said.

The city also asked how people would like to be alerted, and Pflugrath said staff were not surprised to learn that most people (64%) wanted to receive alerts by email or text message.

Another 17% preferred a mobile app push notification, compared to 12% support for social media posts, and 7% for a voice call service.

While voice was a relatively smaller portion, Pflugrath said it was seen as an important one, because it still stood out among a number of other notification methods.

Which emergencies to include

Pflugrath said the city would send out alerts on things like floods, fires, landslides, evacuations, shelter-in-place orders, hazardous materials incidents, and opening life-safety supports, such as extreme heat cooling centres or earthquake support centres.

Not included in the alert system would be weather, wildfire smoke, transportation incidents, road closures, water and sewer disruptions, or third-party utility disruptions.

Staff noted the federal Alert Ready system already alerts people to tornados, amber alerts, civil emergencies, national security emergencies, and earthquakes. The BC Emergency Notification System, meanwhile, notifies people of tsunamis, floods, fires, and, as of this year, extreme heat.

Part of the reason for limiting what kinds of alerts would be issued, Pflugrath said, is “notification fatigue,” or the possibility of people turning off or ignoring notifications after receiving too many.

Alerts will be split into two types: critical and advisory alerts. The former refers to a situation that “requires urgent action, is extremely severe (i.e. threatening to people’s lives), and there is a high certainty that the hazard will occur.”

After receiving critical alerts, people “need to be prepared to follow the directions and/or take immediate action for life safety or protection of property.”

Advisory alerts refer to situations where the emergency is not life-threatening, or the city is not the lead agency in responding to the event. In an advisory alert situation, the hazard is still potentially a risk to health or property and could escalate to a critical alert status if it worsens.

For example, Fraser Health is the lead agency in an extreme heat event, like last year’s heat dome, but the city would still issue an advisory alert to notify people of cooling centres opening.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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