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Parkland Refinery incident raises questions about Burnaby's public alerting system

Emergency crews descended on the Parkland Refinery Sunday morning, and people across Metro Vancouver took to social media with questions about a related stench, but it took five hours for Burnaby residents to get a notification through the city's mass notification system.
A flare at the Parkland Refinery in Burnaby. (From files.)

An incident at the Parkland Refinery this weekend raised questions about the effectiveness of the City of Burnaby's mass notification system.

About a dozen fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles descended on the North Burnaby refinery at around 8:20 a.m. Sunday, and a "burnt-rubber" smell blanketed parts of Metro Vancouver, but it took local residents nearly five hours to get a notification on the city’s public alerting system, Alertable.

Launched by the city in June 2022, the app is intended to notify residents about life-threatening emergencies and incidents that have the potential to become more severe.

On Sunday, however, it took until 1:17 p.m. for people to get an alert on the app.

The notification said there had been an incident at the refinery resulting in a strong odour.

It went on to say the Burnaby Fire Department had "established an operational perimeter between the facility and the adjacent neighbourhood" and confirmed there were "no immediate concerns related to the safety of citizens."

By 1:17 p.m. Sunday, however, all of that information was already available elsewhere.

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Chief Karen Fry had taken to X (formerly Twitter) as early as 9 a.m. sharing what information she had.

The City of Vancouver issued a public safety advisory at 11 a.m., saying the strong smell was due to a Parkland incident.

Metro Vancouver put out information before noon, and Parkland issued its own statement about the incident at about 12:30 p.m.

Even the City of Burnaby's own public affairs department scooped the Alertable notification with a news release at 1:06 p.m.

Davis Vaitkunas, a North Burnaby resident who sits on Parkland's community advisory panel, said the alert he got Sunday at 1:17 p.m. was the first related to an incident at the refinery.

One of the reasons he sits on the panel, he said, is to push for better communication using modern tools.

He said he signed up for Alertable notifications because he lives in the area.

"I'd like to get my family out of there if there's a problem, so I'm looking at it from that perspective," he told the NOW.

But the notification he got Sunday left him with questions.

"Maybe that works for an odour, but does it work for another emergency?" he asked. "Would they move faster if it was a different type of incident?"

Vaitkunas said he doesn't know what the benchmark should be for how quickly Alertable notifications are sent out.

"What's left wanting on my side still is just 'OK, so if this takes a few hours to get information, where's the channel where we get more pertinent information?'"

The NOW asked the city why it took so long for the Alertable notification to go out.

Public affairs manager Chris Bryan didn't directly answer that question.

"We understand that many people who smelled the vapours released by the Parkland Refinery were anxious and seeking more information," he said in an emailed statement. "Although the incident occurred on Parkland property and the city is not responsible for air quality monitoring in the region, we also recognize that residents look to us for information happening in Burnaby."

Bryan said the city will do a "full debrief" of the incident.

"Our goal is to ensure residents receive the information they are seeking in a more timely fashion, by the parties responsible," he said.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on X/Twitter @CorNaylor
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