Woolwich residents scratching heads over tornado warning calls
Thousands of Woolwich Township residents got phone calls notifying them of a tornado warning Wednesday night – even though no such warning was ever issued.
Woolwich, along with the rest of Waterloo Region, was under a severe thunderstorm warning for parts of the night, while tornado warnings were issued for areas around Brantford, Woodstock and London, but Environment Canada never issued a tornado warning for Woolwich Township.
What was behind the calls was a chain of events starting at the offices of Emergency Management Ontario.
Shortly before 4 p.m., EMO sent alerts via email and Twitter claiming a tornado warning had been issued for Waterloo Region.
One of those emails went to Dale Martin, Woolwich’s deputy fire chief, who looks after the township’s emergency preparedness.
“On my way home from work, I received an email from Emergency Management Ontario,” Martin tells CTV News.
“They had issued a tornado warning for the Region of Waterloo.”
Woolwich is one of a handful of Ontario municipalities to have a phone alert system in place in case of extreme weather.
Once Martin saw that email, he activated the system, which automatically calls about 8,800 homes in the township.
“We sent out a phone message with the information that we received from EMO,” he says.
After about 20 minutes, EMO posted a correction to Twitter, stating that only a severe thunderstorm warning was in place for Waterloo Region.
Not seeing any email corrections, Martin contacted EMO around 7 p.m. to figure out what was happening and spoke with an operator.
“He never told me that there were no warnings; he just told me that the warnings had been cancelled,” Martin says.
That set off a second round of phone calls, to let residents know that the danger had passed – even though, unbeknownst to local officials, there had never been any danger.
Martin calls the incident “unfortunate” but points to nearby damage – including windows blown out by hail in Cambridge – as a reason to have taken Wednesday’s storms seriously.
“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” he says.
“In Elmira the sun was shining, it was nice. In Breslau it was raining and windy. There, people could probably understand why the message was sent better than people in Elmira.”
Jason Thistlethwaite, director of a climate change adaptation project at the University of Waterloo, says it’s important to check and double-check any weather warnings spotted on social media and ensure they’re coming from Environment Canada or another credible source.
“You have to be careful and make sure who your source is,” he says.
“It doesn’t help the credibility of things like social media when you have errors or misinformation going around. It’s good practice to check around, see what other media are saying.”
Thistlethwaite says governments and official organizations can also use social media to communicate during severe weather, and points to Waterloo North Hydro’s use of social media during recent storms as an example.
In a statement released to CTV News, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services acknowledged the “incorrect information” and noted that the mistake “was immediately corrected in a subsequent tweet.”
“The Ministry sincerely regrets and undue alarm and circumstance this error may have caused,” the statement reads.
“As a result, we are carefully examining our process for public alerts.”