Amber Alert for missing boy sparks complaints over new mobile emergency system

When the siren-like sounds from an Amber Alert rang out on cellular phones across Ontario on Monday, it sparked a bit of a backlash against Canada's new mobile emergency alert system.

CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement system to distribute warnings of imminent threats

A test of Alert Ready sent this message to many people. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

When the siren-like sounds from an Amber Alert rang out on cellular phones across Ontario on Monday, it sparked a bit of a backlash against Canada's new mobile emergency alert system.

The Ontario Provincial Police had issued the alert for a missing eight-year-old boy in the Thunder Bay region. (The boy has since been found safe.)

But gripes about the system soon began to pour in. Kingston police said they received "several complaints" regarding the Amber Alert notice. On social media, people startled by the alerts complained about the number of alerts they received and that they had received separate alerts in English and French.

"Sooo, is that emergency alert going to happen at like 4 a.m. with sleep mode enabled? Just asking for my heart health," tweeted James G. 

Meanwhile, others who were located far from the incident felt that receiving the alert was pointless.

"I've received two Amber Alerts today for Thunder Bay, which is 15 hours away from Toronto by car," tweeted Molly Sauter.  "Congrats, you have trained me to ignore Emergency Alerts."

Mark Blevis, an Ottawa-based digital public affairs analyst, said he understands the importance of Amber Alerts, but system managers risk alienating cellphone users at some point if these types of alarms go off regularly.

"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," Blevis said. 

At the very least, they should be able to figure out how to avoid the duplication of English and French alerts, he said.

More important, however, said security expert Matthew Overton, system managers need to ensure that the messages stay at the "people are paying attention" level.

"And that's the real struggle. They are intensely aware that they could just dull people's senses to the alert."

Warnings of imminent threats

The CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement the system to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats such as tornadoes, floods, Amber Alerts or terrorist threats.

System managers risk alienating cellphone users at some point if these types of alarms go off regularly, say experts. (CBC)

Telecom companies had favoured an opt-out option or the ability to disable the alarm for some types of alerts. But this was rejected by the broadcasting and telecommunications regulator.

Individuals concerned about receiving these alerts are left with a couple of options: they can turn off their phone — it will not be forced on by the alert — or mute their phone so they won't hear it.

But receiving complaints about Amber Alerts is nothing new, said OPP Sgt. Jeffrey Simpkins, manager of operations for community safety services.

Some people have complained when alerts were broadcast on television, angry they had interrupted their favourite show. 

"It's unfortunate that people look at it that way," Simpkins said.

He said police will "throw every resource we can in the safe return of a child that has been abducted."

As well, the police issue about five to eight Amber Alerts a year, Simpkins said, meaning an alert is a "significant event" and only issued because they believe there's an "imminent threat to the child."

Simpkins said there should be a way to regionalize these alerts, so not everyone in the province is receiving them. But according to Pelmorex, the company that operates the Alert Ready system, provincial and territorial governments decide whether the alert is distributed across the province, or just to a particular location.

'Which alerts do you want people to ignore?'

As for those who suggest using a different signal or type of alert depending on the emergency, security expert Overton said that would defeat the purpose.

"The question that has to be asked is really fundamental … which alerts do you want people to ignore? People … will say, 'I'm not going to pay attention to the Amber Alerts because they never apply to me."

He said the system is still a "work in progress."

Tests across Canada, for example, have revealed some glitches in the system. Some cellphone users are not receiving the alerts, and that was the case on Monday.

Nathan Gibson, a spokesperson for Bell Canada, said customers need to check if they have an Alert Ready compatible cellphone, and that their device is updated with the most recent version of the operating system. He said customers must also be connected to the LTE network at the time when an alert is issued.

They are working through a new medium now with the cellphones and getting used to the actual details of doing that," Overton said.

"This is the right thing to do and it's going to be a good system for Canadians. But you have to show a little tolerance as they work through the bugs," he said. "They learn from mistakes and it's not too often that you're getting an alert that you look at and say this is not new information."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press


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