Speaking in code: Does new emergency system go far enough to warn the public?

Tara Jeffrey

Questions are being raised about the way in which the community is notified when mishaps occur in the Chemical Valley.

Following the 2014 rollout of the My Community Notification Network (MyCNN), some warning codes stopped being relayed automatically to the public through local media.

“It’s frustrating from where I sit,” said Dave Dentinger, news director at Blackburn Radio in Sarnia, noting media outlets no longer receive CVECO Codes 8 and 9. A Code 8 notifies of an internal abnormal occurrence, while a Code 9 calls for municipal fire assistance.

The changes came after the MyCNN system — which notifies subscribers of community emergencies via phone, text and email — replaced a pager system that relayed all emergency alerts in the Chemical Valley to local news outlets.

“The argument was, we should be given a heads up along with the first responders, so we can be ready to mobilize if you will, if things escalate,” said Dentinger. “As far as I know, we’re still in the city’s emergency plan as a major communication arm, in the event that messaging has to be given to the community.”

The argument from industry and emergency officials is those alerts are typically minor in nature.

“Essentially, Code 8s have always been internal codes; CVECO takes no action, and Code 9 is really just a request for municipal fire departments,” said Dean Edwardson, general manager of both the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association and CAER (Community Awareness Emergency Response).

“The whole system originally was meant for first responders. It was not necessarily intended for the media per se — although they are still an integral part of our notification system.”

Dentinger said while most Code 8 calls are minor, that’s not always the case.

He pointed to an Aug. 31 incident at Plains Midstream in which high flaring and black smoke was visible from a distance at the Plank Road plant, prompting calls and concerns from residents but no explanation or notification from the company.

Dispatch records show a CVECO Code 8 was issued, which didn’t go to the media under the new restrictions.

“In my experience a Code 8 can range from very minor to very significant,” Dentinger said. “So right now, there is nothing compelling industry to advise the media of a wide range of incidents that may occur within the plant.

“And with a Code 9 – people in Sarnia or St. Clair Township see a fire truck racing down to a chemical plant, and it seems to me the public deserves an explanation through the media,” he added.

“So, I am uncomfortable with that.”

Edwardson noted the media do still get some alerts, including Code 6s, which call for full traffic control in designated areas.

But Dentinger said that’s still not an efficient way to inform the community.

“A Code 6 means the situation has escalated to the point where it has spread beyond the plant perimeter and now public roads are being impacted,” he said.

“From a media perspective, that’s the first indication we would get as an alert that we may have to be telling the public something.”

Cal Gardiner, Sarnia’s emergency management coordinator, noted the new system can reach 53,000 people in minutes, and pointed to a phone line the public can call for information about minor incidents like high flaring or sirens sounding.

But many concerned residents turn to the radio for immediate information, Dentinger said.

“They’ve been told in the emergency plan to tune into local radio for a report and possible instructions. But we don’t even know what’s going on if it doesn’t go beyond a Code 8 because we don’t get that notification.

“In my opinion, people deserve notification from the media and media oversight as opposed to somebody just making a quick voice recording on the telephone line.”

Edwardson said there are no plans to change the system.

But Mayor Mike Bradley said it’s something he’ll be looking into, noting he wasn’t aware of the restrictions on which CVECO codes are issued to media.

“I’ve always had the view that, [the media] should get all the codes, and then they make a news judgment,” he said. “In the world of social media now, we often get people questioning if there is something going on, and they ask, ‘Why wasn’t it on the radio?’ And that in turn creates distrust.”

Former CAER administrator Allen Wells, who has been critical in the past of Sarnia’s emergency response system, echoed Bradley’s comments.

“I’m surprised CAER is not giving that info out. My impression for the last year is that they were full of information,” said Wells, who headed the group from 1989 to 2001.

“If you don’t know about alarms … you’re still just as lost when something happens that you need to know about.”