Local media still the best way to communicate in emergencies

One Man's Opinion
By Doug Collins
June 20, 2017 - 5:00am Updated: June 20, 2017 - 8:39am

KAMLOOPS — A new study released yesterday shows the struggle many Fort McMurray residents had trying to find answers in last year’s devastating wildfire. An analysis of 70,000 tweets showed many could find no source of information as the wildfire roared through their community, tearing apart lives and leaving many homeless.

Many are calling for some sort of app to feed information to residents in times of emergency, but those that have been devised so far have been woefully inadequate. They just aren’t able to keep up. Social media became the “go to” source of information, but much of it was inaccurate, and many residents wound up not knowing what to believe.

Which way to get out of town was the safest? Where can we gas up? Where do we go to find an Emergency Centre? These were the kinds of questions being asked by panicked residents watching the flames creep ever closer.

The real answer is- there is no app that will work in those kinds of situations. The fire spread far too quickly, it created such a maelstrom that no one could keep up. As tragic as that is, it’s the way it is. Ultimately, the best way of communication in these events is local media.

If you look back to 2003, and the wildfires we had here, the most reliable source of information was local radio and television. All local media worked hard to keep residents updated-relaying information from emergency forces in an instant. It could well have saved lives. Being able to indicate which roads were closed, updating information on evacuation alerts, evacuation orders, and location of emergency centers, all of this was instantly communicated by local media, who stayed on the air 24 hours a day for much of the worst part of those wildfires.

Kamloops media were outstanding in how they handled the fires. And remember, while Kelowna’s loss may have been greater, the danger here was worse in many ways because we had more fires to contend with all at once, and everyone’s resources were stretched thin.

Researchers in this recent Alberta study were quick to admit that smartphone apps lacked relevant and useful information when dealing with the Fort McMurray fire, and I’m not sure an app can be developed to deal with that particular situation.

Remember that in the Kamloops and Kelowna scenarios, local media were able to stay on the air and give first-hand reports on the situation. In Fort McMurray, as the fire raged through town, media were fleeing like everyone else. They couldn’t stay. That meant information was being fed from afar, from people who weren’t necessarily on top of the situation.

I would like to think that we will one day find a way to keep people better informed on these disasters, but in reality, it will not be an easy task. For example, look at the emergency procedures in place for things like the bombing in Manchester, the incidents on London Bridge. You can’t get out information quickly enough, and that’s what happened in Fort McMurray.

The statement “there’s an app for that” , which Apple used so well in promoting its iPhones a few years back, does have some limitations. This is probably one of them.