'We didn't know about it': Halifax Water unaware it had access to provincial alert system

Halifax Water may have been able to send an alert about this week's nearly city-wide boil-water advisory sooner had the utility known the province's emergency alert service was available to it.

"We didn't know about it. So that was on us in terms of the delay," said Jeff Myrick, a communications manager for Halifax Water.

Halifax Water found out about an electrical issue at the J.D. Kline Water Supply Plant, which serves 201,000 people in the municipality and is the largest water supply plant in Atlantic Canada, around 1:20 p.m. on Monday. The electrical issue caused non-chlorinated water to enter the municipal system for 30 minutes.

Myrick said they initially tried to determine if the problem could be fixed before it spread beyond the facility.

"You have to understand how the treatment process works. So that section of water was still within the confines of the treatment process. We were trying to figure out how to get it out of the system and hopefully flush it out before it started to go into what is a five-kilometre force main before it even hits any of the distribution network," he said.

By 4 p.m. Monday, Halifax Water was preparing a message to inform the public. The utility sent out a news release at 6 p.m. and the municipality sent out an alert at 6:28 p.m.

Jeff Myrick is a spokesperson for Halifax Water.
Jeff Myrick is a communications manager for Halifax Water. (CBC)

"Halifax certainly helped amplify the message, but it was not until about 7:20 p.m. that we learned that the Nova Scotia alert system was ready and we'd never used it before, so we had to understand what the process was to get something in, and we also had to condense it, so it was all a new process to us," Myrick said.

A Nova Scotia alert was sent at 8:49 p.m., about 20 minutes after the provincial Emergency Management Office was notified, a spokesperson said in an email.

The boil advisory affected Halifax, Bedford, Spryfield, Timberlea, Hammonds Plains, Beaver Bank, Middle and Lower Sackville, Windsor Junction, Herring Cove and parts of Fall River. An alert that the boil order was lifted was sent out at 10:19 a.m. on Wednesday.

Cause of electrical issue still not known

It's still not known what led to the electrical issue. Myrick said it remains under investigation.

Coun. Lisa Blackburn, who represents Middle/Upper Sackville-Beaver Bank-Lucasville, said she heard from two residents who were unhappy about how long it took to receive an emergency alert.

Blackburn said she was unaware Halifax Water had access to emergency alerts.

Coun. Lisa Blackburn represents District 14.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn represents District 14. (CBC)

"It makes sense that they would, but I think this is really the first time that something like this has happened and the emergency alert has been brought into play, but it was a surprise to me as well that Halifax Water had access to that alert system," Blackburn said.

In terms of municipal messaging, Blackburn noted hfxALERT — a program residents can sign up for to receive texts and emails about things like parking ban notices — did send out its own notification less than 30 minutes after Halifax Water issued its news release about the advisory. She said details about the boil order were also posted on social media.

"We're definitely more in tune because of Portapique to the provincial alert system and the possibilities it does offer to get messaging out when we need to get it out," Blackburn said, referencing the 2020 mass shooting and its public inquiry's discourse around emergency alerts.

In a statement, the Halifax Regional Municipality said it consulted with the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office to determine whether it was appropriate to use the provincial alert for boil-water orders. Municipal staff confirmed the decision is left up to municipalities.

The Emergency Management Office declined to be interviewed.