The government that spent Sunday morning trying to figure out what to say on Twitter wouldn’t react any faster had the emergency been real
The good news is, you’re not dying, and neither is anyone else. (Unless you were already dying of something. In that case, the good news is that the rest of us aren’t stealing your moment.) But on Sunday morning, millions of Ontarians got a rude wake-up call that may have left them momentarily pondering their own mortality. An emergency alert message was blasted out across the province warning of an unspecified emergency at the Pickering nuclear power station in the eastern Greater Toronto Area. The alert said there had been no release of radioactivity and to stay tuned for more information. It was all the more frightening for its lack of detail.
The alert was an error. A false alarm. A mistake. It was also a hell of a way to start your Sunday morning
It’s too soon at time of writing to explain what led to this embarrassing and very serious error. Ontario Power Generation, which operates the plant, has said it will get to the bottom of it. Premier Doug Ford’s office has said the same. A lot of possible explanations have been floated: a minor equipment failure at the plant triggered an automatic alert despite not posing any real danger, a training exercise triggered a public alert that was intended to be simulated but not released. Who knows? It could be as simple and horrifying as the 2018 Hawaiian false alarm, when a civil defence employee warned the state’s population that a nuclear attack was in progress … apparently because he was kind of bonkers. Honest. They never came up with a better explanation than that.
But whatever the explanation ends up being, there’s two quick takeaways.
The first is obvious: the emergency alert system still needs work. Such a system is necessary. Essential, even. But Canada’s has been beset by problems. The project to create the current system ran many years late. Since being rolled out, it has encountered major technical issues getting the alerts out to the public, and has also been the target of much criticism for overly intrusive and disruptive alerts, including middle-of-the-night blasts for missing children to sleeping residents hundreds of kilometres away.
Much of this criticism is unfair and inappropriate. But not all. The fact that it took the alert system over an hour to issue an all-clear alert after Ontario Power Generation had already announced it was a false alarm speaks to the obvious problems remaining with the system.
The second takeaway is for the public, not our government agencies. In a crisis, you’ll be on your own, at least at first. The government that spent Sunday morning trying to figure out what to say on Twitter wouldn’t react any faster had the emergency been real. It’s incumbent on all of us to take modest and reasonable steps to see to the safety of ourselves and our families. This doesn’t mean digging a fallout shelter under your backyard (though for a few minutes this morning I admit I wished I’d taken the time to do exactly that). But if you don’t have an emergency kit to last your household 72 hours, if you don’t have a battery or crank-powered radio, if you don’t have a family plan, if you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourself with the threats you could reasonably face in your area — how many of you this morning had the slightest clue what an emergency at a nuclear plant would mean or what you should do? — now would be a good time to fix that.
The failure, on Sunday, was the fault of the government (in some form or another) or the staff at the alerting agency. In a real emergency, if you weren’t prepared and informed, well, that failure would be on you. The false alarm was a surprise test. How would you have done?