When Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette was abducted yesterday from Blairmore, Alta., her smiling face and story quickly appeared on television screens, websites, and radio, following the well-established Amber Alert protocol.

What didn't happen — that would for an American child — was an automatic text alert blasted to millions of mobile users who could keep an eye out for the toddler.

Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette

RCMP issued this photo of Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette of Blairmore, Alta., who they say was abducted Monday. (Alberta RCMP)

In Canada, getting mobile Amber Alert notifications is voluntary, which is something the mother of another missing child wants changed.

"It's doable. It shouldn't be a choice," said Crystal Dunahee, the mother of Michael Dunahee, one of Canada's most-publicized missing children.

In the U.S., officials have spread Amber Alert notifications to all mobile users through its Wireless Emergency Alert program since 2013.

Only a small fraction of Canadian mobile users have opted-in to the voluntary system here — and the automatic notifications are another year away.

'Time is crucial' 

Dunahee, whose son disappeared from a school playground in Victoria, B.C., in 1991, called the abduction of Dunbar-Blanchette "heartwrenching."

Crystal Dunahee

Crystal Dunahee's son, Michael, went missing in 1991 when he was four years old. He has not been found. (CBC)

"I can only imagine what the family is going through at this point in time, the not knowing," she said. Michael has never been found.

Dunahee learned about yesterday's Amber Alert on her Facebook feed, and thinks the automatic mobile alerts would save important time.

"Time is crucial. And you could have seen that vehicle going by, but you didn't know because you didn't get the alert."

The system now relies on voluntary sign-up, said Christy Dzikowicz, director of child safety and family advocacy for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Though Amber Alerts are already spread widely and quickly, automatic mobile notifications would be helpful because it gets the news in the pockets of people while they're out in the community, she said.

"The reality is somebody sitting watching the six o'clock news in their home is not very well-positioned to help us find a missing child."

Mobile alerts coming in 2016

It takes less than a minute to sign up to receive wireless Amber Alerts via text message, but only 45,387 Canadians have, said Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

"That's not a very large number" compared to the 28 million mobile phone users in the country that will receive alerts once the new mobile emergency system rolls out, he said.

The new system — announced by the CRTC last June — will send emergency messages directly to mobile phones, without signing up, including forest fires, floods, water contamination, and Amber Alerts.

But the technology is still being "tested and re-tested," said Choma, to make sure it works for all Canadians with a compatible cellphone. The pilot testing is expected to start next year.

"We are a little ways out from having actual push alerts delivered regionally to your cell phone if you are in the area of an emergency," said Choma.

In the U.S., alerts are sent based on the location of the device at that moment — whether or not you've signed up — so even travellers would receive the emergency information in a text-like message. Users can opt out of Amber Alerts, extreme weather warnings, and local emergency information, but not presidential alerts used in a national emergency.

Until the new system comes in, Canadian cellphone users can text AMBER to 26237 or sign up at WirelessAmber.ca.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article misstated the types of alerts U.S. mobile users must receive. In fact, users can not opt-out of presidential alerts during a national emergency.
    Sep 28, 2015 10:10 AM PT
With files from Farrah Merali and Belle Puri