The CFB Esquimalt siren caused panic at a nearby school. (News files)

“This is not a drill:” test tsunami alarm sparks panic at elementary school

CFB Esquimalt issued apology for broadcasting wrong message

A tsunami alarm blasted from CFB Esquimalt’s mass notification system yesterday had some Macaulay Elementary students in tears.

The naval base issued a public service announcement Thursday morning saying they would use the mass notification system Oct. 19 at 10:20 a.m with a siren that sounds like an emergency vehicle, lasting approximately one minute. A message signifying it as part of the provincewide Great British Columbia ShakeOut earthquake drill was to follow.

But the wrong message was broadcast, causing confusion and fear at the nearby school.

The children were outside at recess when they heard the siren followed by the message: “Tsunami warning. Head to higher ground. This is not a drill,” according to Karen MacEwan, principal at the elementary school.

“The children and the adults were very surprised, and the children went into panic,” MacEwan said. “We had children in tears. Children that were very upset, that needed a lot of comforting.

“We had 460 students streaming into the school. The teachers flew out of the staff room and went into help mode. They immediately went to their classrooms, started counting students, making sure everybody was here.”

RELATED: Victoria shaking it out with earthquake preparedness

Teachers and staff went to her office to find out if the alarm was real, as they knew the earthquake drill was scheduled. But it was the wording of the message following the alarm that was unexpected, said MacEwan, who was also shaken up.

“There was a part of me that thought this must still be a drill because it is 10:19 on the B.C. ShakeOut Day, so how could it be anything else. But my training, in all my years as an educator, tells me we don’t ever say ‘this is not a drill’ unless it’s not,” she said. “My heart was pounding.”

RELATED: Great Shakeout earthquake drill happening at 10:19 a.m.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said confusion around yesterday’s alarm suggests the city and residents take a closer look at how they respond in emergency situations.

“Many of our residents use that siren as one of the ways to know there is an emergency,” she said, adding that the notification system is meant for the base and not the public.

Desjardins said a presentation from Royal Roads masters students about Esquimalt’s emergency preparedness was already on next Monday’s council agenda, and after yesterday, the need to be prepared is clear.

“Having had the siren go off yesterday, having had some reaction to it… confusion around it, I think it’s just very timely along with this study that we’ve got so council and staff can really look at what are other steps we need to do to make sure people are prepared for emergencies.”

Base commander Capt. Jason Boyd said in a tweet yesterday that the siren was part of the B.C. ShakeOut drill, but the wrong message was broadcast.

CFB Esquimalt also issued an apology for the message on their Facebook page.

“Thank you for your patience, we apologize for the statement saying “This is not a drill” that was a technical error and there was no real emergency,” it read. “We participated in the Great BC Shakeout this morning which resulted in the sirens and announcements that were heard.”

You can listen to the CFB Esquimalt siren here.

lauren.boothby@vicnews.com

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