‘Critical need’ for emergency alert system, says Indian Arm resident

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When a chimney fire broke out three months ago at a home near Twin Islands, part way up the Indian Arm, neighbours kept the blaze under control until first responders could arrive.

Firefighters rushed to the secluded scene. While on the way, they provided instructions over the phone.

Taking care of their own is familiar territory for the approximately 150 residents who call the boat-access-only shores of the Indian Arm home.


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“It’s a remote paradise,” said resident Phil Mowatt. “There’s no sort of expectation that there should be more. In fact, most people live up there because they like being remote.”

While the environment invites collaboration, communication between residents isn’t always easy. And in situations like the February chimney fire, every second counts.

“When there’s a fire, the best thing to do is for us all to know about it,” he said.

Four days after the chimney fire, David Barwin wrote a letter to Belcarra council to alert them of: “the critical need for an emergency alert system serving the boat access communities of Indian Arm and adjacent communities.”

Barwin, who lives in Vancouver but has a spot along the arm, said residents have been communicating through informal channels like Facebook and WhatsApp, so a more formal system would be used and appreciated.

“We have people that are willing to respond, but you need to know about it as it happens,” he said. “Finding out about it a couple hours later on social media is not particularly helpful.”

The idea of adopting a mass emergency alert system was pitched to Belcarra council last fall.

The staff report presented by Stewart Novak, Belcarra’s public works and emergency preparedness coordinator, touted its benefits, noting : “some of the features that make Belcarra a quiet, peaceful, and picturesque place to live may also be the same features that can create challenges for the community in terms of safety and emergency preparedness.”

Novak’s report suggested Alertable as an option for the service, which would come with a maximum price tag of $3,600 per year depending on the features chosen by the municipality.

“Simply, I believe that mass notification, mass texting is a key component for emergency management in Belcarra. A mass texting app will allow emergency responders and Belcarra staff to make real-time announcements and give direction to residents that will help to co-ordinate an effective evacuation, or forward information as dictated by the incident,” said Novak.

Alertable is currently used by Vancouver, Burnaby and Port Coquitlam.

Novak’s presentation elicited questions from council.

In what scenario would Alertable be useful that the village’s current email notification system couldn’t cover? How is the system easier to use? How can it reach more people? Coun. Bruce Drake asked.

Novak said the system can be used to call, text or email those who sign up. On the administrative side, they can also pre-program messages.

“It’s much improved from an email where somebody has to be on a computer or have access to a computer and write out an email message,” said Novak. “It’s very valuable, I think, for our community.”

Other councillors remained reserved about the service, wanting Anmore and Port Moody to sign on before Belcarra.

“We don’t need to be the first one to do this,” said Coun. Liisa Wilder.

Novak said there is a need for leadership.

“Just because we’re a small municipality, doesn’t mean that we can’t make decisions on our own.”

The decision was ultimately delayed until the new council, which was elected last November, could weigh in.

Metro Vancouver, which includes Electoral Area A, is planning to transition from Connect Rocket to Alertable in the near future, a spokesperson said. The system is generally triggered by natural hazards like flooding and wildfires.

Depending on the location of the emergency on the arm, it can take the fire department upwards of an hour to arrive.

Barwin’s letter to Belcarra council has prompted them to request a staff report on the subject. A request for an update on the timeline of when council may see that report was not returned.

Barwin said he believes it could also be used to alert those living along the Indian Arm that their neighbour might need help. The remote lifestyle means you’re ready to give a helping hand and you keep an eye out for anything amiss, he added.

Over the years, Indian Arm residents have set themselves up with skills and tools to take care of their own in emergencies. Working with various agencies on both sides of the water, they’ve held sessions on how to effectively use fire extinguishers, how to FireSmart your property and even organized a group purchase of water pumps and the training to go along with them.

“Everybody’s realistic,” Barwin said. “Nobody expects that the fire department is going to show up.”

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