Ontario phones abuzz after test of national alert system, but not all goes as planned

A test of Canada's new national public alert system got underway in Ontario and Quebec Monday, although not without hiccups.

Mobile devices hooked up to LTE service sounded and vibrated for an emergency test

A smartphone receives a visual and audio alert from Alert Ready, a national public alert system. (The Canadian Press)

A test of Canada's new national public alert system got underway in Ontario and Quebec Monday, although not without hiccups.

Cellphones, tablets and other devices across Ontario buzzed with the emergency test alert just before 2 p.m., while others stayed silent. Radio and TV stations also ran the alerts.

But the Monday tests did not go as planned.

"I was kind of waiting for it," said Ed Lounsbury, a Toronto resident. " I figured I would come outside and see if everybody's phones went off."

But the alert never came. 

At least one Android user reported a typo in the title of the Ontario alert message: it said "Presidential Alert" instead of the standard "Emergency Alert."

The planned test in Quebec earlier in the morning failed to reach cellphone users because of an extra space included incorrectly in the code sequence, according to a spokeswoman for the CRTC, although the radio and TV tests worked successfully.

Matt Brundele was also expecting to hear the alarm but didn't receive it.

"It's nice that they're sending it out as a test," said Brundle. "I'm hoping the second test goes better."

Alert Ready, the organization coordinating the test, said in a statement: "we understand that some wireless users did not receive the test alert. All Alert Ready partners are working together to identify the cause."

Bell, Rogers and Telus said they are also investigating why some users did not receive the alert.

The test will continue in other provinces on Wednesday.

Depending on individual settings, users with compatible devices connected to an LTE network are supposed to hear a tone similar to an ambulance alarm or feel a vibration for eight seconds. 

Devices that are turned off won't receive the signal but phone users will hear their conversations interrupted by a sound similar to a call waiting tone. There is no charge for the alert, as it is not an SMS and does not use data like a text message.

This screenshot from an Android phone mistakenly reads 'Presidential alert,' instead of the standard 'Emergency alert.' (Jason Boychuk/CBC)

Preparing for the worst

The tests are being conducted after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered wireless providers to implement the system to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats such as tornadoes, floods, Amber Alerts or terrorist threats.

A similar system is already used in the U.S., and made headlines earlier this year when an emergency official in Hawaii mistakenly sent an alert about a potential incoming ballistic missile.

A report issued last month by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said the false alarm, which went uncorrected for 38 minutes after being transmitted and caused widespread panic across the Pacific islands state, was a result of human error and inadequate safeguards.

"The CRTC has no insights with respect to what occurred in Hawaii, other than what has been reported in the media," the regulator said.

"But Canada has safeguards in place" to prevent false signals from being distributed to mobile devices, said CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao.

Not a text message

Unlike wireless emergency alerts issued in the U.S., Canada's system requires a specific vibration cadence, alert tone and banner to notify users of an emergency.

As well, the emergency alerts are not text, or SMS, messages, but are distributed using what's known as cell broadcast technology. The messages can't be tracked by service providers so they can't tell who has or has not received the alert, the CRTC said.

Some Canadian service providers sent text messages to subscribers last week alerting them to the tests, which are mandatory and may require users to acknowledge a message before they can resume normal use of their devices.

Here are the scheduled times for the tests. All times are local:

Monday

  • Quebec 9:55 a.m.
  • Ontario 1:55 p.m.

Wednesday

  • Yukon 1:30 p.m.
  • Northwest Territories 1:55 p.m.
  • Alberta 1:55 p.m.
  • British Columbia 1:55 p.m.
  • Saskatchewan 1:55 p.m.
  • Manitoba 1:55 p.m.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador 1:55 p.m.
  • Nova Scotia 1:55 p.m.
  • Prince Edward Island 1:55 p.m.
  • New Brunswick 6:55 p.m.

With files from The Canadian Press