British Columbia

Did your cellphone make an alarming sound? Mixed result for B.C. test of new emergency alert system

Some cellphones across British Columbia started vibrating and sending off a distinctive ringing sound on Wednesday afternoon, as a new public alert system was tested.

Technical glitches abound as tests roll out across Canada

British Columbians with LTE service on their mobile devices will be getting an emergency alert message at 1:55 p.m. PT Wednesday. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Some cellphones across British Columbia started vibrating and sending off a distinctive ringing sound on Wednesday afternoon, as a new public alert system was tested. But not everyone got the message.

Provincial officials are investigating why the emergency alert test failed to go out to all compatible cellphones as planned at 1:55 p.m. P.T. 

"It doesn't seem to be consistent between wireless carriers, phone types or software types," Ian Lightbody, with Emergency Management B.C., said of the the glitch.

"Some phones seem to get it and some phones don't, and we are not really sure why yet."

Phones with an LTE connection were scheduled to receive the alert with a text message, a tone similar to an ambulance alarm and an eight-second vibration.

Radio and TV stations also successfully run the alerts at the same time.

Officials will be working with cellular carriers to figure out the problem, which has also plagued tests in other provinces, Lightbody said.

The B.C. system will be used to issue tsunami alerts for now but, officials say, could be expanded in the future.

"The alerts right now in B.C., we are only going to be using them for tsunamis but the intent is to expand to other alerts as we prove the system and make sure it works," said Ian Lightbody, director of projects at Emergency Management B.C.

This method of alerting the public to an emergency is just the most recent update to the nation's preparedness efforts, said Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.

"This is not intended to replace every system that is in place. This is the latest ability through technology and the feds requiring telecommunications carriers to be able to provide this service," he told On The Coast's Gloria Macarenko. 

This text message was sent to phones in B.C. to test the new emergency alert system. (Mike Laanela/CBC)

National testing

The system is being tested across the country — but earlier this week, Ontario and Quebec ran into problems trying out the new alert system. 

Residents in Quebec failed to receive the alert because of a technical coding issue.

In Ontario, some devices receive the alert while others stayed silent.

Some residents in Ontario also reported receiving a message that mistakenly read "Presidential alert'' instead of the standard "Emergency alert."

Alert Ready, the organization coordinating the test, is investigating what went wrong.

Farnworth said that the system should be operational by as early as June if programmers can fix all of the glitches identified in this round of testing.

False alarms

A similar emergency alert system is already used in the U.S., but has also run into problems.

A false tsunami alert was broadcast across the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State on Monday.

Officials say an app used to remotely trigger the sirens was to blame.

"Anytime there's a false alert it certainly damages our credibility and it makes people question whether the alarms are the real thing," said Karina Shagren, speaking for the Washington Military Department

Emergency cellphone alerts also made headlines earlier this year, when an emergency official in Hawaii mistakenly sent an alert about a potential incoming ballistic missile.

With files from The Early Edition and Liz McArthur.


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