New emergency alert system fails test in Quebec, subject to problems in Ontario

Signals for a countrywide public alert system test were meant to be sent to millions of mobile phone, tablet and other device users in Quebec this morning, but no one got them. Ontario also had its problems.

Tests on mobile devices being carried out across Canada this week

Mobile phone users in Quebec who have The Weather Network app downloaded on their phones received a version of the alert, but not the warning that was supposed to be issued. Some cellphones in Ontario also didn't receive the alert. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A new countrywide emergency public alert system for mobile devices set to debut in Quebec on Monday failed to reach residents, while Ontario also had its problems, said a spokesperson for the CRTC.

The tests are being conducted after the CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement the system to warn of imminent safety concerns such as tornadoes, floods, Amber Alerts or terror threats.

CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao said the difficulties in Quebec did not originate with cellphone service providers.

Rather, it appears the problem occurred between emergency management in Quebec and Pelmorex Corp., which operates the system.

Valladao said that in a code sequence that was entered manually by a Pelmorex employee, a space was included incorrectly, which prevented the system from sending the message in Quebec through wireless phones. ​

Depending on the settings, users with compatible devices — such as smartphones and tablets connected to an LTE network — were supposed to hear a tone similar to an ambulance alarm or feel a vibration for eight seconds starting at 9:55 a.m. ET in Quebec.

But there was nothing but silence.

The test in Ontario was carried out at 1:55 p.m., and while some mobile phone users reported having received an alert, others said their phone didn't make a peep.

Tests in most of the rest of Canada, except for Nunavut, will take place on Wednesday. 

System provider working to fix problem

Pelmorex, the system provider in charge of managing the wireless device alerts, is working to correct the problem as soon as possible, said Thomas Blanchet, spokesperson for Quebec's Public Security Ministry.

"That's why we do testing, to make sure that the connection is OK," he said.

Radio and TV stations ran the tests successfully, according Blanchet. By noon, some Quebecers had also received a test alert through either The Weather Network or Météomédia apps.

But Blanchet said those alerts have been in place for app users since 2015, and that Monday's wireless testing is different.

Blanchet said it's unclear whether the alert will be launched again once the problem is fixed, but he stressed the population would be notified if that were to be the case.

Similar system in U.S.

A similar system is already used in the United States 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 said Canada has safeguards in place to prevent false signals from being distributed to mobile devices.

Unlike wireless emergency alerts issued in the United States, 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.

Here are the scheduled times for tests scheduled for Wednesday outside Ontario and Quebec. All times are local:

  • 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 Lauren McCallum and The Canadian Press