Public Alerting in Canada – Bridging the Gap

By: Dan McArthur and Cynthia Weeden

Since early 2015, numerous emergency response agencies, governments, academics and others across Canada have supported the need for Wireless Service Providers (WSPs) to start using their systems to carry public alerts. This support was largely in response to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandate in 2014 that called for Canadian Radio and TV Broadcasters to implement Public Alerting capabilities, but failed to include the same requirement for WSPs. As a result, the CRTC held a public consultation in 2016 to review the need for WSPs’ participation in the nation-wide system. Nearly one year later, the CRTC ruled that the WSPs needed to participate in the National Public Alerting System no later than April 2018. This mandate is a victory for all First Responders and Emergency Management Agencies across Canada and a huge win for the Canadian public. However, when compared to other countries around the world it quickly becomes apparent that more needs to be done to address these lengthy timelines and include First Responder organizations in governance processes to ensure effective, timely implementation of the tools they use each day.

Canada has been focusing on public alerting since 2001 when the Federal Government earmarked dollars to support it. There had been much hope that broadcasters would volunteer and start carrying public alerts on radio and TV. However, with no consolidated nationwide approach in place, nothing much happened. It wasn’t until 2008 that a Senate Committee identified that only the CRTC can mandate broadcasters to carry alerts, and that alerting participation should not be on a volunteer basis. Since that time the Federal Government worked to establish the CAP/CP alerting standard and also the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) System, bringing the capability to disseminate alerts to broadcasters. Soon after, private industry worked with Radio/TV Broadcasters and Wireless Service Providers to successfully test alerting capabilities by 2014, serving as a prelude to where we are today with the recent CRTC mandate. But it didn’t have to take this long.

For many years now countries around the world have enjoyed the use of Wireless Public Alerting as an important part of their alerting strategy to help safeguard the public against all hazards that have life-threatening potential. However, among the G10 nations, Canada has fallen behind in the use of wireless technology to alert the public during emergencies. In fact, Australia mandated wireless public alerting soon after a horrific wild fire occurred near Victoria, Australia, on February 7, 2009, otherwise known as Black Saturday, tragically claiming the lives of 173 people in one afternoon. In a move that focused solely on public safety, the Australian Government, First Responders and Wireless Service Providers worked successfully together for approximately a year to implement a system that was auditable, accountable, and reached all of its cellular subscribers: a capability provided in a system that allows two-way communication, Location Based Short Message Service (LB-SMS) Text.

Many countries around the world use LB-SMS technology for public alerting and just as many use alternate technologies such as Cell Broadcast, a technology that basically turns cell phones into radio receivers to receive radio broadcast messages. There are good arguments for use of both technologies, but the fact that Cell Broadcast requires new phones to be manufactured for it to work, leaves this system out of reach for many for years to come. And with continuing advancements in technology today, additional solutions are emerging that can further reach and send alerts to members of the public, such as Internet Protocol (I/P) providing the ability to pop up alerts on computers or perhaps any device that is connected to the Internet such as I/P TV. However, the time taken to implement an approach, if left unchecked, will undoubtedly leave us chasing the next greatest technology and force us into an environment where we never fully realize the true potential of each technology before it is well on its way to becoming ineffective due reduced use trends. We have to look no further than our own public alerting timeline to get a sense how this can be applied.

When the focus is placed on the safety of the public, political and technological aspirations take a back seat and Governments, First Responders and Wireless Service Providers work together effectively to ensure implementation is quick and solution effective. Australia serves as a prime example of what can happen when First Responder organizations are provided an avenue to work effectively with governments and technology providers.

Until a greater focus is placed allowing First Responders a greater involvement in the governance of the very tools that they use each day, we continue the risk of being caught in the chase for the next greatest technology.

Australia provides us with much to learn. Placing community safety first and bridging the gap between First Responders and those that provide technology services does save lives.


Dan McArthur has over 30 years of experience in the Nuclear Industry, more recently as Department Manager, providing management and oversight of Emergency Preparedness, Fire Protection and Security Programs at Bruce Power. Now, as Senior Strategist, he maintains and leads Emergency Preparedness Projects and has worked with others to enhance Public Alerting in the region, resulting in a first-in-Canada Cellular Location Based SMS Text Public Alert demonstration conducted in 2014.
Along with being a proud member of the Saugeen Historic Métis Community, Dan is a speaker on Emergency Management in the Nuclear Industry and is an active member of the Conference Board of Canada Council on Emergency Management, a member of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) e-Crime Cyber Advisory Council to the RCMP, and a member of the Canadian Standards Association providing technical input and guidance on Emergency Preparedness requirements for Nuclear Power Plants in Canada.

Cynthia Weeden has over 24 years of recognized experience in strategic leadership roles, including senior management at global companies such as LANSource Technologies (acquired by 3COM) and Opalis Software (acquired by Microsoft). She has spent the past 12 years working directly in the area of public safety technology as Founder and President of FutureShield. She was named 2011’s Runner-up for the Canadian Women in Technology Women Entrepreneur of the Year by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance.