British Columbia

Could you receive a missile text alert on your phone? In B.C., not yet

In Canada, provinces are responsible for emergency management, and they determine who is authorized to use the system to send out alerts.

An overview of Canada's complicated emergency alert system

A false missile alert sent to cell phones in Hawaii raises questions about how alert systems operate in Canada. (CBC)

It was a terrifying morning in Hawaii last Saturday when thousands of people woke up to TV broadcasts, radio messages and a text alert on their smartphones warning them of an incoming ballistic missile.

Of course, it turned out to be a false alarm. But it's sparked a broader discussion about government's capacity to warn people in an emergency. In particular, a lot of people were surprised to learn you could even get such an alert on your phone.

But do we have that capacity here in B.C.? The short answer is: not yet.

How ready is AlertReady?

The backbone of Canada's emergency alerting system is the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System (NAADS). Its public-facing name is AlertReady.

Established in 2010, AlertReady was built and is operated by Pelmorex Media Inc., the parent company of the Weather Network. When activated, the system has the capacity to cut into radio and TV broadcasts, or send alerts out over other channels such as websites and social media.

Belanger says the system is mostly used for tornadoes, wildfires and amber alerts, but it can theoretically be used for anything from severe weather to terrorist threats.

Who makes the call?

But AlertReady is just the infrastructure. Provinces are responsible for emergency management, and they determine who is authorized to use the system to send out alerts.

"It's really them who will decide when to issue an alert [and] for what kind of situation," Belanger said.

This varies by province. In B.C., Emergency Management B.C. is the only organization allowed to activate the system. But other provinces have opted for a more decentralized approach where individual municipalities — or even local police and fire department — can activate the system themselves.

Alberta has its own emergency alert system that actually predates AlertReady. The Alberta Emergency Alert system, established after a tornado killed 25 people and injured more than 250, has been in place since 1992.

The Alberta system is a highly decentralized approach. Tim Trytten, team lead for the system, says about 900 individual users around the province are authorized to use it to issue alerts. He acknowledges the potential for security problems and false alarms, but he says the tradeoff is worth it.

"They're closest to the situation, and they have the best available information," Trytten said.

"Yes, you improve security and you improve the alerts by centralizing them, but you lose accuracy, because that centralized source takes time to get all the information available, and it takes more time to issue an alert."

Emergency Management B.C. did not make anyone available to CBC News for comment.

Not great for earthquakes

In terms of natural disasters, one of the most pressing concerns on the West Coast is earthquakes and tsunamis — but AlertReady is not especially useful for these types of seismic events.

Kent Johansen is an engineer at UBC's Earthquake Engineering Research Facility. His team designed and operates the earthquake detection and alert system that's used by B.C.'s Catholic schools and a few public schools as well. He says speed is imperative when it comes to warning the public about earthquakes.

"We probably have 16 to 26 seconds [of advanced warning] if it's an intercostal quake," Johansen said.

Traditional SMS text messaging just isn't an option in that kind of a scenario. You can only send about 10,000 a second, and with almost 2.5 million people in the Lower Mainland, you wouldn't be able to reach everyone fast enough.

Instead, Johansen says, we need dedicated earthquake warning devices — ideally in homes, but he says we should start with public buildings like schools, government buildings and even stores and factories.

LTE messaging is coming

The text alert sent out in Hawaii was done using LTE messaging. That capability doesn't currently exist in Canada — but it will as of April 6, 2018, when the CRTC will start requiring all cell providers to provide AlertReady the ability to send out LTE messaging alerts on their networks.

Like SMS, LTE messaging allows an alert issuer to send a text alert to anyone in a designated geographic area based on which cell tower they're connected to. But unlike SMS, LTE messaging uses a phone's data connection rather than its much slower and more crowded telephony connection, so it doesn't bottleneck the same way.

However, not all phones are capable of using LTE, and if you're in a more remote or rural part of the country, you might not have access to an LTE network even if your phone is capable of using it.

To hear the full story listen to media below:

With files from The Early Edition