January 23, 2020

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Storm-warning communication an urgent issue

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2018 (533 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The time for hand-wringing has passed. The inevitable finger-pointing impulse should be suppressed.

What's important now is doing everything possible to minimize the chances that another Manitoban's life will be lost as a result of a tornado or, more particularly, insufficient warning that a tornado's arrival is imminent.

As a result of the limited LTE coverage, many Alonsa-area residents could not receive a new emergency alert that is distributed during tornado warnings. (Graeme Roy / The Canadian Press files)

As a result of the limited LTE coverage, many Alonsa-area residents could not receive a new emergency alert that is distributed during tornado warnings. (Graeme Roy / The Canadian Press files)

In the aftermath of last weekend's Category 4 tornado near Alonsa, Manitoba, which resulted in catastrophic property damage and the death of a 77-year-old resident, legitimate questions are being asked about emergency preparedness and the communications systems that are supposed to provide early warnings when severe weather events occur.

The RM of Alonsa is located on the west side of Lake Manitoba, about 200 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. Several residents interviewed after the tragedy said cellular service in the area, which had long been inconsistent, has been virtually non-existent for many since Bell MTS conducted an upgrade of its wireless sites in some parts of Alonsa.

The work provided LTE wireless coverage for some users, but also resulted in "some pockets where coverage was already limited (that) may have seen reduced coverage," according to a Bell MTS spokesperson.

As a result of the limited LTE coverage, many Alonsa-area residents could not receive a new emergency alert that is distributed during tornado warnings. And due to the reduced coverage after the tower upgrade, other residents could not even receive alerts from weather apps that don’t require LTE service.

On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister said he will seek answers from Bell MTS regarding the dropoff in service that occurred after the late-June tower upgrade. But he also cautioned that expectations should be tempered when it comes to rural cellular service, stating that Manitoba is too big and too sparsely populated for Manitobans to expect 100 per cent emergency-warning coverage.

Mr. Pallister described as "premature" any suggestion of financial incentives for cellular providers to improve coverage in rural areas.

What's clear, as family members mourn the loss of a loved one and residents set about the backbreaking task of cleaning up after the storm, is that the province's emergency measures related to storm-warning communication must be addressed. Stating that Manitoba is large and its rural population is sparsely distributed is factual, but not an excuse for missed or misdirected alerts.

In an ironic twist of scheduling, the Pallister government on Wednesday issued a news release touting a three-year project aimed at replacing the province's outdated FleetNet public-safety communications service with a new two-way mobile radio system that will give first responders secure communications in times of crisis. "Ensuring the safety of Manitobans is our duty," the premier said in the release.

What's clear... is that the province's emergency measures related to storm-warning communication must be addressed. Stating that Manitoba is large and its rural population is sparsely distributed is factual, but not an excuse for missed or misdirected alerts.

Indeed. One assumes such a duty includes ensuring Manitobans have a chance to take cover when a tornado is headed their way.

As the effects of climate change continue to manifest in myriad ways, from extreme storms to extended droughts and associated wildfires, weather patterns are shifting. The idea that "tornado alley" — once defined as a swath of storm-prone central U.S. states — is migrating northward is something Manitoba should consider when assessing the cost/benefit ratio of its telecommunications infrastructure.

There will be more tornadoes. As a consequence, the need for timely and effective warnings will be ever more acute. And there is nothing even remotely premature about government and the corporate sector beginning in earnest the no-nonsense conversations that will lead to necessary improvements in rural telecommunications infrastructure.

It isn't solely a business-case consideration. It's a life-and-death issue.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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