Canadian Province Adds Social Media to Emergency Alert System: Will More Regions Follow?

In an emergency, would you turn to the radio or to Twitter? One Canadian province anticipates the latter and adds social media to its emergency response system.

In an emergency, would you turn to the radio or to Twitter? One Canadian province anticipates the latter and adds social media to its emergency response system.

In may 2011, a fire ravaged the town of Slave Lake Alberta. 7000 residents were forced from their homes – the largest ever mass evacuation in the history of Alberta, and the premier called the fire the  “worst curve ball nature has ever thrown to us.” The fire destroyed 40% of the town of Slave Lake. Four months later, the province of Alberta is implementing a new Emergency Alert system which uses digital technology including social media in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the Slave Lake fire.

The province of Alberta has been running a new education campaign since August 1st 2011 which seeks to inform and encourage Albertans to visit the province’s new website, Facebook, and Twitter pages. While all three sites are relatively simple in design and information, they are all sleek and to the point, emphasizing information over flare. The first test of the new system is scheduled for mid-September 2011, and the last few weeks has been spent preparing and training people to use the new system.

Alberta says that alerts will be issued on social media outlets and on the website, but that critical alerts – those alerts that involve imminent danger for residents – will also be broadcast on radio and television. However, the province concedes that during severe weather conditions, power supply can be cut off and this can impact the ability to get information and warnings to the public via television and radio.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Hector Goudreau notes in a CTV Edmonton article: “There were certain mediums we could not use even to warn people. That’s why we’ve expanded our alerting system to include a new website, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.”

However for the residents of Slave Lake, who remain unimpressed by the government’s action during the fire, it is little consolation. Ernestein Brown, a Slave Lake resident, was quoted in the CTV article as saying, “Still to this day, it will kind of get to me. Especially whenever I talk about it I guess. It wasn’t just my home, it was my family’s home. My parent’s home. And losing everything like that is hard.”

The province’s new alert system, the first overhaul in 20 years, seems to reflect Goudreau’s sentiment,” I think it would have been better if we had it then.”

From fires to earthquakes to floods, 2011 has been the year of natural disasters, and in many cases people have turned to social media to spread news and information. They have also turned to outlets – Twitter in particular – to get up to date reports on various events. While Alberta was spurred into seriously looking at their Emergency Alert system for the first time in twenty years by a disaster, more regions should seriously consider following suit. In an emergency, having an official voice on social media may be as important as having one in traditional outlets.

Has your region added Twitter or Facebook to their emergency strategy?