Alert Ready is almost ready
The Alert Ready system, a mass notification system operated in partnership by Pelmorex, the federal and provincial governments, TV and radio broadcasters and wireless providers, was tested across Canada during the week of May 7.
This was the first time the system was tested on cell phones, although only compatible LTE cell phones with updated software can receive alerts.
But the test did not go as smoothly as planned for Quebec and Ontario, the first two provinces to receive the test alerts.
The system uses the National Alert Aggregation Dissemination system (NAADs) from Pelmorex.
Government authorities access the system to issue an alert, which Pelmorex then processes to make available in real-time to the TV and radio broadcasters, and now wireless providers. The broadcasters and providers then distribute the alert to the public.
However, in Quebec, “there was an issue where the test alert was not sent to the compatible cell phones in the province,” says Martin Belanger, director of public alerting, Pelmorex. “That was caused by an extra character in one of the configuration files in the Alert Ready system.”
Meanwhile, in Ontario, a number of people reported that they did not receive the alert.
According to a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, “this could be due to a number of factors including device compatibility, the software version on the device, or whether they were connected to an LTE network.”
A step in the right direction
Despite the glitches during testing, the system is largely seen as a step in the right direction for emergency management in Canada.
Suzanne Bernier, a crisis management consultant, speaker and author who has been in the emergency management field for more than 20 years, says the system is “a great step in showing how much more capability we have to be able to communicate with the public during an emergency and notify them when something is occurring or about to occur.”
Bernier admits that there will be challenges with the system, as in the case with Ontario and Quebec. However, testing is done to work out such difficulties, she says.
“That’s the whole purpose of running these drills and these exercises, so that we can catch these kinds of things and fix them, so that if and when they’re really needed … then we know we’ve got everybody.”
Alain Normand, manager of the Emergency Management Office, in Brampton, Ont., agrees that the system is a watershed moment for emergency management.
Getting to this point took years of work, he explains.
According to Normand, mass notification systems in Canada have historically been behind the technology and “missed the boat.”
Getting the Alert Ready system for TV and radio took years of lobbying, he says, because the media “thought we were taking control away from them.”
By the time it was rolled out, the public had largely stopped watching TV and moved to computers.
Additionally, the emergency management industry worked for years to implement the “Reverse 911” system, whereby police use a database to find the phone numbers for a series of addresses, and send an emergency message through those phone lines.
Yet once again, “when it finally got approved, it was too late because now most people don’t have landlines anymore, they’ve got cell phones,” he says.
Consequently, the recent launch of the Alert Ready system via cell phones is a major victory for emergency management.
False alarms ‘unlikely’
But with any mass notification system, there are concerns about false alarms, particularly in light of the false missile alert in Hawaii in January of this year.
Both Belanger and Normand believe that false alarms are unlikely.
Since the system is run through the provinces, “it’s very well-supported,” says Normand, and a missile alert would be sent out through the federal government, through Public Safety Canada.
Belanger adds that there are a number of safeguards in place.
“It’s the responsibility of the authorized government agencies to issue the alert when needed. So they … manage who can access the system, who can issue what kind of alert and for what reason,” he explains.
Additionally, Pelmorex has built a number of steps into the system to validate the issuer’s intent, and ensure it’s a “conscious decision that they’re sending that alert out.”
Furthermore, unlike the system in Hawaii, Pelmorex provides a separate training platform for issuers to create and test alerts that do not reach the public.
Finally, if a false alert does go out, “the issuer can quickly go into the system and issue a cancel, and that will be sent out automatically in real time.”
Despite the progress this system represents, Normand believes it still needs to be “fine-tuned.”
In his opinion, there should have been a localized pilot test before testing the system nationally. “Now the whole country knows it doesn’t really work very well,” he explains.
“I’m afraid that a lot of people are going to be suspicious of it or are going to be wondering, ‘Is it really going to work or am I going to start getting messages when I don’t need to?’” he adds.
In fact, on May 14, the Alert Ready system sent an Amber Alert to the province of Ontario about a missing boy in Thunder Bay, Ont.
“This Amber Alert that came out…didn’t help,” Normand says. “That Amber Alert should have been for Thunder Bay, in that area only, and yet the whole province got it.”
Consequently, he says the technology needs to be upgraded to “make sure that they do get what we’re trying to reach, which is this localized alerting aspect.”
Belanger says Pelmorex and its partners will continue to look at the system and work towards improvements, although he could not provide any specifics.
Bernier also believes more needs to be done — not necessarily to the system itself, but to reinforce the message that the public should be prepared for an emergency at home as well.
Compared to 20 years ago, the number of people prepared at home has not grown, she says.
“Yes, we all are working on plans together as government, as communities, to make sure that we can notify people,” she continues. “However, we all as individuals…also have a responsibility to make sure that we’re prepared.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Canadian Security.