For a period of two minutes on Oct. 1, in an industrial area of West Hill emergency sirens blared. But there was no danger to the public. It was just a test by Toronto East Community Awareness and Emergency Response.
The sirens operated by Toronto East CAER, an association of chemical manufactures and local emergency services, could be heard from a distance of one kilometre.
“I was walking my dog and heard what sounded like one of the sirens when a bomb is going to be dropped,” said one Scarborough resident. “It didn’t last long, so I did not really think anything of it.”
The purpose of the sirens is to provide advance warning, should there be an incident at any local chemical manufacturers, requiring residents to either seek shelter or evacuate the area.
During a recent CP24 phone-in talk show, Mayor David Miller was asked by a caller why are there no early warning systems in Toronto to warn citizens of natural or man-made disasters. The caller spoke of the tornado in Vaughan this summer.
Miller said there is some work being done in the east end of Toronto, but that there are better ways to inform the public than the traditional air-raid sirens of the past.
Rob Tavener of the City of Toronto Office of Emergency Management agrees with Miller and said his office is looking into other forms of technology to better serve Torontonians.
Tavener said people are familiar with the use of sirens as a form of early warning due to their history with air raids, potential bombings, and dangerous weather. In some areas, like the U.S. mid-west, a siren is recognized as a tornado warning, but how can it be understood in a city like Toronto?
Like the resident who was walking their dog, Shawn Melancon, who works as a chemist at a plant only yards away from one of the sirens near Coronation Dr. and Manse Rd., says he also heard the alarm with no knowledge of what it stood for.
The OEM is also looking into other forms of technology to keep Torontonians in the loop.
“We have to think about this in a really modern way,” Miller said. “We have to have a modern way of communicating, for an example, a tornado warning from Environment Canada to be sent to cell phones which reaches 90% of us who do have phones and can be passed on to the remaining 10%.”
The city is also looking into the use of web applications like Listserve that would send out a mass email to a list of subscribers, Tavener said.
“There is no one best way to warn Torontonians,” Tavener said.
Torontonians regularly face severe thunder and electrical storms that can spawn tornadoes. There is also the threat of severe flooding, as well as snow and ice storms.
Man-made threats also exist with the possibility of large industrial fires such as the Sunrise explosion last summer, chemical spills, and the possible threat from Toronto’s proximity to Pickering’s nuclear power plant.