Opinion

Canada's wireless Amber Alert system can be improved. That shouldn't be a taboo suggestion: Robyn Urback

It takes a unique combination of dumb and evil to call 911 because an alert about a missing child roused you from your sleep. Having said that, it's possible to both care about missing children, and believe the wireless Amber Alert system needs a few fixes, Robyn Urback writes.

It is possible to both care about missing children, and believe the Amber Alert system needs a few fixes

Those who are woken up by an Amber Alert at home, in bed, are likely of little use in the search for a missing child. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

It takes a unique combination of dumb and evil to call 911 because an alert about a missing child roused you from your sleep. I don't know who these people are, or why they seem to be confused about the nature of emergency services, but I hope no trauma should befall them before the next time they call 911: when the drive-thru forgets the extra Big Mac sauce.

But while these zenith tattletales deserve all the scorn and mockery that has come their way this week — after police had to remind people, hours after an Amber Alert was issued in the case of a missing three-year-old boy, that being woken up isn't a matter for emergency services — it is nevertheless fair to say that the system isn't perfect, and could do with some improvements. It doesn't mean you don't care about missing children to suggest that.

It has been about one year since Canada started transmitting electronic alerts to mobile devices, including in Amber Alert cases. Prior to that, emergency alerts under the National Public Alerting System — which also include emergencies such as extreme weather events, terrorist attacks and natural disasters — were broadcast on radio, television and via satellite distributors, but would not appear on Canadians' cellphones unless they had voluntarily signed up for the alerts.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced back in 2015 that emergency alerts would soon be coming to all mobile devices, and it launched public consultations the following year. As part of those consultations, wireless providers advocated for some sort of opt-out option that would allow mobile users to turn off notifications for certain alerts.

To do that, the CRTC would have had to create a subcategory of wireless public alerts — one distinct from the "broadcast immediately" emergency alert messages, as defined by the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management, or SOREM, a working group of federal, provincial and territorial managers.

The pitch was rejected by the CRTC, which cited a lack of consensus among interveners about which alerts should be optional, and the need for consistency on emergency alerts across broadcast and wireless receivers "so that Canadians can receive the same alerts regardless of transmission medium."

Sounds reasonable. Except not all media are created — or used — the same way. Most Canadians don't sleep with the TV or radio on, but they do sleep with their smartphone charging beside the bed, which means they are more likely to be woken up by a mobile alert.

And those who are woken up by an Amber Alert at home, in bed, are likely of little use in the search for a missing child, as opposed to someone driving along the highway or watching TV in a bar.

But I can already hear the critics: So what? It's a minor inconvenience; roll over and go to sleep.

Most will. I did when my phone went off early Tuesday morning. But I also silenced my phone without looking at the alert, since I assumed — even in my drowsy stupor — that it was an Amber Alert, for which I would be of no use. That is, of course, the danger in transmitting all emergency alerts in the same way, with the same tone. The middle-of-the-night "get away from the window" alert is assumed to be another Amber Alert, and ignored.

The emergency alert system in the United States works differently. Its Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system incorporated Amber Alerts in 2013, though users can opt out of receiving notifications about missing children, along with those about other emergencies such as extreme weather events. They cannot, however, disable "presidential alerts," which, as tested late last year, can appear nationwide.

Despite the fact that individuals can disable notifications, the Amber Alert system is still hugely successful in the U.S. Between January 2013 and April 2018, wireless emergency alerts were specifically credited with the rescue of 56 children. For context, there were 195 activated Amber Alert cases in the U.S. in 2017, 193 of which resulted in a recovery, and 39 of those were a direct result of some sort of Amber Alert transmission. Canada's Amber Alert system is similarly successful, though we don't have data that specifically credits our still-new wireless emergency alert system.

Creating a second tier

Canada need not take the exact same route as the U.S. Current settings, according the CRTC, allow individuals to set their phones to "silent" if they don't want to hear a middle-of-the-night alarm (though anecdotes from the grumpy and sleep-deprived tell me this is not always the case with certain smartphone models). But that leaves Canadians with an all-or-nothing choice: if you want to know about the tornado barrelling toward your house, for which you'll probably want to get out of bed, you'll have to wake up for the Amber Alerts, too.  

But creating a second tier of alerts — distinct from "broadcast immediately" — would alleviate the problem. Some emergency alerts would override a "silent" or "do not disturb" mode, but others would not. It wouldn't be so much an "opt-out" as a "don't wake me up, because I probably won't be able to help anyway." All phones in the region would still receive the message, but an alarm wouldn't sound, except in the case of a top-tier alert.

It might sound callous to call for an option to allow Canadians to sleep though something as serious and potentially devastating as a missing child, but the reality is we can't force people to care. And trying to do so, as we have seen over the last year, just has negative repercussions: growing apathy, grumpy coworkers, clogged emergency service phone lines. The wireless Amber Alert system is a great tool to help find missing kids. With a few tweaks, it could be even better.


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About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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