Mobile users warn of 'apathy' after alerts ring out for Thunder Bay abduction

Some eastern Ontario residents are cautioning that a new public emergency alert system could breed apathy after they received multiple alarms following the abduction of a child near Thunder Bay.

New alarm system rang multiple times Monday after child disappeared 1,500 kilometres away

Some mobile device users in the Ottawa area are concerned that a new phone-based alert system could breed 'apathy' after it was used to notify people of a missing child 1,500 kilometres away. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Some eastern Ontario residents are cautioning a new public emergency alert system could breed "apathy," after they received multiple alarms following a child abduction 1,500 kilometres away.

Many mobile phone users received at least one loud notification Monday morning after an eight-year-old boy was reported missing north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

The Amber Alert was cancelled just over an hour later when the boy was found safe — prompting a further notification.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ordered wireless providers to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats, including severe weather like tornadoes and floods — but also terrorist threats and Amber Alerts.

In Ottawa, a roughly 15-hour drive from the scene of the incident, some people were puzzled by the need to have an alarm blaring on their phones.

Could be tuned out

Dominic Bonin was on a conference call when his and his colleague's phones all suddenly went off  — first to announce the boy had disappeared, followed by a second notification about 20 minutes later.

He then he received a third alert later in the day announcing the boy had been found.

Bonin said he had no issue with the concept of an Amber Alert, but worried people might eventually stop taking the notifications seriously if they didn't think they were relevant.

"I just think people are going to try to find ways [to tune them out]," he said.

"Either someone's going to come up with an app to deactivate this kind of stuff, or some people are going to be dismissive towards them."

Some called police

Others in eastern Ontario called their local police forces to complain about the alerts.

In a tweet, the Kingston Police Service said they'd received "several" complaints about the Thunder Bay alert and wanted people to know they weren't the ones who sent it.

"Kingston Police did not issue the Amber Alert and have no control over the alert on your phone," the police force said.

"If you have concerns or complaints, contact your service provider."

An Ottawa Police Service spokesperson told CBC News they would be looking into whether they had also received complaints.

'Don't breed that apathy'

The initial test of the emergency alert system last week failed to reach a number of residents in Ontario who nevertheless had compatible mobile devices.

"Where public alarm is at stake, or is a factor, you need to really think through the various scenarios and the user experience," said Mark Blevis, an Ottawa-based digital media specialist.

Blevis said he first thought the alert was a test — but by the time he'd received the second French-language alert, he knew it was real.

You need to find a way to streamline it so they don't breed that apathy that causes the whole system to break down.- Mark Blevis

Still, he questioned whether sending separate alerts in different languages was the best idea.

"Amber Alerts should not be taken lightly. Obviously they may not be as immediately pressing to the wider public as some sort of terrorist attack or some threat of some sort that affects a large population," Blevis said.

"But if they're going to send out multiple alerts on the same thing, you need to find a way to streamline it so they don't breed that apathy that causes the whole system to break down."

Pelmorex, the provider for the alert system, told CBC News that from their perspective Monday's alert was a "success."

With files from Mark Gollom and Trevor Pritchard