Nuclear Lessons in Communication

Dragos Rotaru • Sunday Jan 12, 2020

Timeline

At 7:24 am today, an alert was sent to 15 million Ontario residents through the Canadian emergency alert system, Alert Ready.

⚠️ EMERGENCY ALERT / ALERTE D'URGENCE:

This is a Province of Ontario emergency bulletin which applies to people within ten (10) kilometres of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation. People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time. Remained tuned to local media for further information and instructions.

At 8:06 am, the power company OPG (Ontario Power Generation) tweeted a retraction.

Important update: the alert regarding #Pickering Nuclear was sent in error. There is no danger to the public or environment.

— Ontario Power Gen (@opg) January 12, 2020

At 8:35 am the retraction was corroborated by the city of Pickering. It was also retweeted by the Durham Region and Durham Regional Police twitter accounts.

We have confirmed that there is no emergency or incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, and that there is no danger to the public. The emergency alert issued by the Province earlier this morning was sent out in error.

— City of Pickering (@CityofPickering) 12 January 2020

At 9:10 am, an official retraction was finally published via the alert system.

⚠️ EMERGENCY ALERT / ALERTE D'URGENCE:

There is NO active nuclear situation taking place at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. The previous alert was issued in error. There is no danger to the public or environment. No further action is required.

Analysis

Using Google News, I read all of the news coverage published up to 11:45 am. I found that none of the news outlets were able to provide any information beyond the scope of what was in the original alerts and tweets. Some of the news outlets actually spread false information – 3 articles incorrectly stated that the alert was only sent to the affected 10km area. CBC's coverage demonstrated to be the most accurate and up to date.

One source had a disproportionate level of access to insight: CBC Ontario provincial affairs reporter Mike Crawley. He was able to obtain statements from key parties faster than anyone else, confirming the event was a false alarm at 8:16 am.

BREAKING: This emergency alert about the Pickering Nuclear Generating station was “sent in error,” officials in the premier’s office confirm. A statement will be coming shortly from Ontario Power Generation. pic.twitter.com/sD7Yyffxc3

— Mike Crawley (@CBCQueensPark) 12 January 2020

4 key organizations had some involvement in the communication of this incident. Note that the PEOC is a sub-division of the Ministry of the Solicitor General. Even though the Solicitor Generals office has issued an apology, confirming "the alert was issued in error during a routine training exercise", all of these groups share a joint responsability to communicate effectively with the public, whether it is in the event of an actual incident or a false alarm.

We do not know what happened in these organizations during this crucial period. Rest assured, the investigation will be sure to provide the public with a straightforward answer; some person will lose their job and we can all rest easy. Not quite.

Discussion

The reality is that in any complex system, what can go wrong WILL go wrong given enough time. Systems submit to entropy. People make mistakes. False alarms happen. Lets hope a real one never does. The question is, what could have been done to mitigate damage done by a false alarm? As we've seen from the Hawaii, these mistakes have measurable impacts on mental health. With 15 million Ontario residents, it is totally plausible that at least one of 15 million had a life-altering experience this morning.

I want to draw your attention to the alert itself. Lets see how we can use common sense to craft a better message.

Geo-Fencing

The alerts are broadcast to the entire province instead of being geographically constrained, leading to increased Alarm Fatigue. A surprisingly large portion of people commenting on news articles and Twitter stated that their phones were turned off during the night, because they were sick of getting these emergency alerts. Ontario residents are sent alerts (usually Amber Alerts) for incidents happening very far away from them. This may or may not be valid for Amber Alerts, a cost benefit study should be done - nonethelesss if a message only applies to a specific area, as stated in the alert, why not use geofencing?

Confusing and Ominous Doublespeak

"⚠️ EMERGENCY ALERT". "NO abnormal release of radioactivity". "emergency staff are responding to the situation". "People ... DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time".

This sounds like something the USSR would send out at Chernobyl. What is this trying to tell me? Should I go back to sleep or prepare a bugout bag?

Clear Call to Action

"Remained tuned to local media for further information and instructions." is quite unhelpful. We live in the age of the internet, social media, conversational bots and fake news. Why not specify their purpose-built website, https://preparetobesafe.ca? Or the ontario warnings twitter account?

Bilingual Support

The alerts include a title in French, but no translation of the message body. This unnecessarily crowds the screen while providing zero benefit to French speaking Canadians. Pick one or the other!

Conclusion

Lets apply some of these suggestions to the message. Keep in mind my French is poor, so I didn't attempt to write a bilingual message.

Before

⚠️ EMERGENCY ALERT / ALERTE D'URGENCE:

This is a Province of Ontario emergency bulletin which applies to people within ten (10) kilometres of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation. People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time. Remained tuned to local media for further information and instructions.

After

⚠️ Be Advised

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is responding to a possible incident. There is no danger to the public at this time. Please stay informed by visiting https://preparetobesafe.ca, following @OntarioWarning on twitter or tuning in to [insert radio / tv stations / etc].