Crouched on the roof of his childhood home, Jordan Jongema clung to his dog and refreshed the dim screen on his dying cellphone and checked for updates from strangers on the murky flood threatening to swallow him up.
He’d been relying on social media for updates on the flooding rapidly taking over his parents’ home in Chilliwack, B.C., leaving him and Bernese mountain dog Bowser with nowhere to escape.
“If you weren’t really paying attention to social media and had the news running, there really wasn’t a way to catch this,” said Jongema, 30, who was ultimately rescued by emergency crews around 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
Jongema is among the British Columbians questioning why the province has never used the straight-to-your-cellphone emergency communication system, known as Alert Ready, even as thousands have endured literal hell and high water conditions over and over in a single year.
The string of natural disasters in B.C. has left the province reconsidering its strategy for the program, which has so far differed drastically from other provinces.
B.C. the only province not using system
Statistics show B.C. has never used the Alert Ready technology since it became available to Canadian jurisdictions in 2018.
By comparison, Ontario has sent alerts more than 200 times in the last two years alone for emergencies like tornado warnings and Amber Alerts. Saskatchewan and Alberta have sent 101 and 80, respectively, over the same time frame.
B.C.’s strategy has been to reserve the system solely for tsunamis, meaning it hasn’t been used during any other manner of emergency.
Not during the week-long “heat dome” that broke national heat records and left hundreds of vulnerable people dead.
Not during the brutal fire that consumed the village of Lytton in a matter of minutes, days into that same heat wave.
Not this week, during the most severe flooding the southern part of the province has seen in decades.
Province nearly sent first-ever alert Tuesday
An alert was on the table Tuesday night when the City of Abbotsford was desperate to evacuate several hundred people still on the Sumas Prairie, fearing a critical pump station was about to fail and release a “catastrophic” amount of new water into the flood zone.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province was “ready to send it,” but the city ultimately declined, because the alert would have reached thousands more people in Abbotsford than was necessary, creating the potential for mass panic and more pressure on maxed-out emergency responders.
“They determined that no, this is not the appropriate point to use this,” Farnworth said of city staff, who ultimately decided to go door to door.
“That’s how these decisions need to be made: by the experts on the ground. Not by experts on Twitter, but the experts on the ground dealing with the local situation and understanding the local conditions.”
Facing criticism in the legislature on Thursday about the fact the program has not been used, Farnworth said the province will begin using the system next spring or summer, starting in the fire-prone Central Interior.
Opposition leader Shirley Bond and municipal affairs critic Todd Stone said that timeline is still too slow.
“It’s simply not good enough,” Bond said.
‘Not a silver bullet,’ minister says
A number of municipalities and First Nations in B.C. have created their own local text alert systems, from Vancouver Island to the Kootenays, but they don’t have the same powers Alert Ready does.
Residents don’t get the warnings automatically — they have to sign themselves up — and local text alerts don’t ring like Alert Ready does.
Only the province has the technology to send loud, unsolicited alerts straight to phones.
Farnworth said the Alert Ready system “is not a silver bullet” and there are bugs to fix before it can be widely used.
“We’ve indicated that we want to have a system in place next year … but we have to make sure that it works in compatibility with existing [local] systems that are in place, that you’re not overlapping and that you’re avoiding duplication,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.
He also pointed out the system can’t work in places without cellphone coverage, which would have included parts of major highways in southern B.C. that saw hundreds of travellers trapped by mudslides and washouts this week.
Jongema, the man rescued from the roof, thought of farmers Tuesday who were focused solely on saving their animals or grabbing what they could from their flooding homes.
They wouldn’t have been scrolling social media or watching the news on TV, he said, but they might have heard the alert blasting from the phones in their pockets.
“I think it would’ve been a lot more helpful for people to quickly understand the urgency. You hear that alarm blaring on the phone … and it kind of gives you a little kick in the rear,” he said in an interview.
“Yeah, no, it would’ve been nice.”