Enhancing Tsunami Warnings

From 2015 to 2017, the District of Tofino, British Columbia, launched several education initiatives and made technological investments to improve the region’s tsunami preparedness. As climate change contributes to increased extreme weather events, coastal communities such as Tofino are threatened by tsunamis due to their high risk for earthquakes. The 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck British Columbia in 2012 tested Tofino’s tsunami preparedness and spurred adaptation action to improve future responses to such extreme weather events. In 2015, Tofino partnered with Ocean Networks Canada to install a Northern Radar system that detects and measures tsunamis. After establishing a strong centralized warning system, the district began investing in education initiatives to inform citizens of emergency preparedness, food security, and survival skills. Over 500 participants attended seven public engagement events hosted in 2016, and several training exercises were conducted to simulate dangerous earthquake scenarios. The Tofino Walk For Life program introduced an innovative “High Ground Hike” that has participants hike to high ground to raise awareness of tsunami evacuation procedures. Other educational initiatives such as Neighbourhood Preparedness Barbecues are being piloted to further connect citizens with crucial resources and evacuation information. Tofino’s Emergency Program also partnered with Tourism Tofino to establish emergency and evacuation plans for resorts and hotels in Tofino. As a result of Tofino’s proactive preparation efforts, the community is well-prepared for when the next earthquake hits.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Having past experience with tsunamis allowed the district to understand the vulnerabilities and high-risk areas. In the case of a major earthquake, residents and visitors in Tofino could have less than 20 minutes to get to high ground before tsunami impact. Critical infrastructure in the community, such as the hospital, school, and fire department are in the safe zone. However, roughly 70% of Tofino is in the tsunami inundation zone, including the majority of tourist resorts. This underscored the importance of working with Tofino Tourism to ensure providers of accommodation had strong emergency plans and sufficient supplies in the event of an earthquake. The 2012 7.7 magnitude earthquake inspired Tofino to hone its tsunami warning system and increase public awareness programs. It was important to develop a comprehensive Tsunami Warning System that would not cause confusion among residents and citizens. Although there is no direct link between significant earthquakes and climate change, climate change does link to some impacts of earthquakes, especially as related to tsunamis. As sea levels rise, tsunami inundation levels will also rise and that directly affects tsunami planning levels for the community. It is also possible that the region will experience changes in landslide susceptibility linked to climate change (especially in areas where permafrost is changing). This could include earthquake triggered landslides. Given these increasing local risks, it becomes critically important for coastal regions such as Tofino to educate the local population on proper evacuation procedure. Understanding the vulnerable areas and industries within the community was an important first step in allowing the district of Tofino to launch targeted education efforts that increase emergency preparedness.

Identifying Actions

Tofino uses a four-pillar approach to reducing the risk of tsunamis (prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery). This aligns with the Sendai Framework and the modernization of the BC Emergency Program Act. A fundamental first step was to implement a notification system for the surrounding jurisdiction. A regional Standardized notification system is an ultimate end goal of the emergency planning process that has and continues to take a lot of coordination. Another primary action included the installation of a WERA Radar system at Tofino Airport that would detect and measure near-field tsunamis. Following the development of a strong Tsunami Warning System, the next course of action is to complement the warning system by empowering the public through creative tsunami education events. Beginning in 2016, various public engagement events and workshops were planned that aimed to raise awareness of tsunami evacuation procedures. Emergency preparedness, food security, and survival skills were other important learning outcomes identified in these planned educational initiatives. Tofino’s Emergency Program partnered with Tourism Tofino, the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, and accommodation providers, as they are a vital source of information and direction for tourists during emergencies. While tourists could not be educated in the same way residents were, Tofino prioritized equipping resorts and hotels with the necessary resources to bring the preparedness level up to the highest standard in British Columbia. Business continuity and emergency planning workshops were also identified as a venue for the sharing of existing emergency plans and resources for the hospitality industry. An important goal of Tofino’s educational initiatives was to build instinctive responses instead of overwhelming citizens with intimidating information. Events such as high ground hikes were prioritized because they were effective at drawing a large group of people and taught tsunami preparedness in an engaging, memorable way.


Tofino began by introducing a comprehensive Tsunami Warning System, which used two outdoor tsunami sirens, texts, emails, phone calls, door-to-door notifications by first responders, radio alerts, and social media. It was important that the warning system was effective at delivering a clear message to all at-risk members of the surrounding communities in the event of a disaster. In 2015, Tofino partnered with Oceans Networks Canada to install a WERA Radar system that would accurately detect and measure tsunamis, allowing the strong warning system to be implemented effectively. As well as the investments in necessary infrastructure, Tofino launched seven public engagement events in 2016 that were key to engaging the community in tsunami preparedness and response. In 2017, eight Tofino Walk for Life events were hosted that mimicked the evacuation to high ground that would occur in the event of a tsunami. These events were often followed by workshops or preparedness fairs. Other activities included an Emergency Planning and Business Continuity event with the Hospitality Industry, a workshop targeting seniors, an emergency responder appreciation event with Tofino’s mayor, and outreach booths during Emergency Preparedness Week. Fierce educational initiatives were implemented to not only improve individual preparedness, but to also foster a prepared community that would be able to assist the most vulnerable – something incredibly important to a resort municipality like Tofino. The implementation plan involves continual education for years to come – educating children and families about emergency preparedness and response is a priority for the next several years in Tofino.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Over 500 participants attended the public engagement workshops hosted in 2016. The community’s improved preparedness was demonstrated when Tofino participated in a regional full-scale exercise for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in 2016. The High Ground Hike events hosted throughout 2017 were extremely effective at attracting members of the community to learn about tsunami evacuation procedures; a recent family friendly High Ground Hike and Preparedness Fair drew over 250 people. As of June 2017, these events engaged over 440 residents and visitors with tsunami education. Events such as High Ground Hikes proved to be extremely effective at pulling demographics that typically would not attend emergency preparedness information events. These events made tsunami information more accessible and less intimidating for the community. The hike built muscle memory—which could then be complemented by a follow-up skill building workshop. The various educational initiatives succeeded at improving the region’s tsunami preparedness. Hundreds of residents now have the knowledge to aid tourists, who may lack knowledge when it comes to evacuation procedure. Tofino, as a result, is not only a safer community for those who live there, but is also a safer place for tourists to visit, since locals are well-equipped with proper emergency response techniques. Keith Orchiston, the Emergency Program Coordinator in Tofino, emphasized that a key lesson learned was the importance of regional collaboration: “Along the coastline, we are all facing the same hazard. Working to complement each other and leveraging each other’s programs is key. Thinking regionally in this approach to tsunamis will go a long way to minimizing issues down the road as more communities start becoming tsunami smart.”

Next Steps

Continual education remains a priority for the District of Tofino. Tofino’s Emergency Management Program is piloting Neighbourhood Preparedness Groups. Grants of $500 for each neighbourhood are being offered by a local non-profit organization to host a barbecue, during which neighbours can map out evacuation routes and plans, get to know each other better, and identify the resources they have to support each other in an emergency. These types of educational events that engage the community while building emergency preparedness are an important component of the long-term preparedness plan for Tofino. The District aims to continue working with surrounding communities to coordinate an organized, effective response system that is standardized amongst the at-risk municipalities along the coast. Reducing confusion and increasing preparedness in the event of a disaster makes for a safer community and tourist location. Tsunami education is being introduced to children in schools, resulting in a future generation that is well-prepared when the next major earthquake strikes. The District of Tofino will continue to learn from their current education initiatives to develop efficient, engaging methods of improving the public’s emergency preparedness.