Yesterday, Canadians across the country will have experienced a test of our nation's emergency alert system.
Since this system is now in operation nationwide, it's worth delving into some of the background. Who runs it? How does it work? What kind of information is it expected to carry?
On the Alert
For a start, it's called Alert Ready. And it's designed to issue blanket warnings over all communications systems.
According to Pelmorex Corp., which operates the system's National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) back end, each "participating province or territory" has been testing the system by issuing one test message via television, radio and cellular networks. (Pelmorex also operates The Weather Network, by the way.)
Issued by "authorized government agencies," alerts may cover a myriad of hazards: fire, flood, earthquake, chemical spills, drinking water contamination, decrease in air quality, terrorist "threats," civil emergency, wild animals... even "natural or human-made materials at risk of falling." Amber alerts are a special case, issued by police services to solicit help in cases of child abduction.
"Not all provinces and territories have had the need to issue an actual alert," said Martin Belanger, Director of Public Alerting at Pelmorex. "Test alerts educate Canadians on what an emergency alert will look and sound like in the event of a life-threatening situation; across television, radio and compatible wireless devices."
Statistics provided by the Alert Ready Web site are interesting. So far this year, Ontario has issued 47 alerts: 33 for tornadoes, plus 16 "amber" alerts related to missing children. Saskatchewan was second with 39 alerts, also mostly for tornadoes. Alberta came third, with 36 alerts for tornadoes, wildfires, train accidents and other causes.
Most other provinces or territories had zero or 1 alert at most. It's not clear if this means they're safer, or more dangerous for not having been warned.
Why and When
Pelmorex reports that the Alert Ready system has been used over radio and TV since 2010, and on cellular devices since 2018. It has so far carried 130 alerts since January 2019, and a total of 1,413 since its launch in 2010.
Here's how it works. A government organization (provincial, territorial or federal), or an emergency management official, issues an alert. The issuer specifies the type of alert, chooses the content, decides whether it should be text only, audio only, or a combination of both, and specifies the geographical area to be covered. The issuer also specifies "why and when" the alert is being sent.
The Pelmorex NAAD system takes this information and pushes it out nationwide to Alert Distributors: television, radio, cable/satellite and wireless (cell) providers. TV and cable/satellite services decide on visual formatting (e.g. color and screen position), and may either broadcast the message once, or repeat it until it is canceled by the issuer.
Pelmorex notes that all new phones sold in Canada since April 6 of this year must be compatible with the Wireless Public Alerting standard. In order to receive an alert, a device must be WPA compatible, must have the most recent software version and be connected to an LTE network.
However, alerts can apparently be received even by phones that are not connected to a service provider. I'm currently reviewing a new Alcatel phone, which does not as yet have a SIM card installed, and hence is not capable of receiving calls or texts. Nonetheless, yesterday's test alarm went off unexpectedly behind me in my small office, at easplitting volume.
The Alert Ready FAQ page makes interesting reading. For example, it cites the question "Can I opt out of receiving alerts" multiple times, suggesting that it is, in fact, very "frequently asked." The same question is further echoed on the site's front page, under "Top Questions and Answers," and in the Pelmorex press release regarding yesterday's test.
The answer, in every case, is an emphatic "no."
"Given the importance of warning Canadians of imminent threat to the safety of life and property," says Pelmorex, "Canadians do not have the option to opt-out of this essential life-saving service. "The Alert Ready FAQ page does promise that alerts will be geo-targeted and "very specific to a limited area of coverage," and that users who receive an alert are therefore "located in an area where there is an imminent danger."
The Alert Ready site also promises that "In general, alerts will respect the settings of your compatible wireless device" including volume settings and silent mode. But it adds that "in some instances," and on some devices, "the alert sound may override your user settings."
There is just one note of caution on the site, regarding what people should do if they receive an emergency alert while driving: "It is important to remain calm and pull over" at the earliest opportunity. It seems like this sort of situation could be a concern in the long run, depending on how often alerts are issued.
Of course the best case is that Alert Ready will remain just that: ready for any emergency... but rarely needed.