Canadians could soon receive mandatory text alerts in emergencies

The CRTC is considering making emergency alerts by cellphone mandatory, meaning service providers and customers would receive notifications of floods, fires, storms and more without having to opt-in.

Monday is the last day to provide feedback to the CRTC on proposed changes

Alerts about missing children, tornadoes, forest fires, industrial spills and other emergencies could soon pop up on your smartphone. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The CRTC is considering making emergency alerts by cellphone mandatory, meaning service providers and customers would receive notifications of floods, fires, storms and more without having to opt-in.

Monday is the deadline for Canadians to weigh in on the idea.

"Approximately 83 per cent of Canadians rely on their cellphones and they're usually carrying their cellphones, that's the best way to reach them," said CRTC spokesperson, Patricia Valladao.

"It's another tool for us to send out messaging to the public to let them know that there's an imminent danger and what actions and steps they can take to make sure they're prepared," Lauren Harris with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.

Looking back at the 2013 southern Alberta floods and the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, Harris said she'd "like to see this up and running tomorrow." 

Of course, changes like this don't happen overnight. The CRTC is currently in the process of collecting feedback from the public.

Inconsistent across Canada

Currently, Canadians can sign up for alerts through provincial authorities where it's offered. The only mandated alerts are sent by TV and radio. 

In Ontario, red alerts are sent out by either email or text message. These alerts "provide recommended immediate actions to protect citizens, their families and others when there is an imminent threat to life, public safety or property."

In Alberta, the Alberta Emergency Alert app sends push notifications to subscribers with alerts and updates.

There is no consistency across the country. B.C. and Saskatchewan have no mobile alerts at this time, for example. 

Wireless carriers on board

Canada's wireless industry has already developed specifications for such alerts — the first big step in the process of bringing such alerts to wireless devices.

In an email statement, Telus spokesperson Liz Sauvé said the company is looking forward to participating.

"Telus wholeheartedly supports initiatives that will get critical, life-saving information into the hands of our customers," she wrote. 

It appears Rogers is on the same page.

"We want to be part of helping people quickly get the information they need in an emergency," Rogers spokesperson, Aaron Lazarus, told the CBC by email.

Bell said it's already working on a pilot project with the federal government. 

"Bell is actively supporting the development of a wireless public alerting system and is actually one of several private and public sector partners working right now to develop the technology as part of a pilot project already under way," said spokesperson Jason Laszlo by email.

A giant fireball is visible as a wildfire rips through the forest south of Fort McMurray. Canadian cellphone users could soon receive text alerts warning them of floods, fires and other significant events. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Text spam won't be an issue

Text message emergency alerts are already being used in Australia and the U.S., which means many of the glitches surrounding the technology have been ironed out.

So if it does get adopted in Canada, people living in Gimli, Man. won't be spammed with texts about high winds off Galiano Island in British Columbia.

Harris said emergency agencies can set up a "geofencing area" and only send alerts to cellphone carriers within a specific area.

"So it's a great tool if we have visitors to Calgary," she explained. "This way it allows us to hit everybody who has a mobile device within that area."

In 2015, the CRTC mandated television and radio stations to broadcast alerts from police, fire and health officials.

With files from the CBC's Sarah Lawrynuik and the Calgary Eyeopener