By Jacob Westfall
Summary: In the past year since wireless alerting was introduced, there have been challenges and improvements made, but has it made Canadians safer?
At the time of writing this article, wireless public alerting has been with us for one year. Since April 2018, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has mandated that all wireless service providers in Canada distribute emergency alerts sent from Canada’s national public alerting system, Alert Ready, to their subscribers. These alerts are generated by emergency officials across Canada to warn the public of hazards such as fires, floods, abducted children, and other life threatening events. Annual tests of the system, in May and November, were also introduced.
The first test of the new wireless alert system was conducted in May, 2018 with mixed results. Ontario and Quebec tested their systems first and ran into some difficulty with delivering the messages, but after adjustments were made, the provinces that tested later saw improved results.
First wireless alert test showed areas for improvement
That first test did a good job of exposing areas of improvement, such as the need for consumers to update their device software to be compatible with the new alerting technology and to be connected to an LTE network (Alert Ready Device Compatibility, nd). At the time of the May, 2018 tests, wireless providers were required to only ensure that half of their devices available for sale were compatible, and even that may still have required a software update by consumers.
As part of the public education campaign last year from the wireless providers, SMS text messages, which are a different technology than wireless alerts, were sent by all of Canada’s wireless providers to their subscribers to announce the new wireless alerting capability and the upcoming test. This lead to a misunderstanding that every customer who received this SMS text, would also get a wireless alert.
Improvement has been demonstrated a year later
Another test of the wireless alert system took place on May 8, 2019 and demonstrated a marked improvement in the operation of the system. A survey conducted by Public Emergency Alerting Services Inc. (Alert Ready Test – Survey Results, 2019), a company with extensive experience in public alerting in Canada, found that 80% of respondents received the wireless alert test message. Television and radio continued to also be an important distribution channel for emergency alerts, while newer methods like social media and specialized mobile apps like Alertable were also seeing widespread use.
The two key areas of improvement from 2018’s tests are now being addressed a year later. The CRTC has mandated that 100% of new devices for sale by wireless providers be compatible with wireless public alerts. As older, non-compatible phones are replaced, the system will increasingly reach more of the 31 million mobile subscribers in Canada. LTE network coverage, which is required to receive a wireless alert, continues to expand, with 99% of the population and 86% of major roads and highways now covered. Despite those positive numbers, there are still underserved communities in Canada, as we saw in Manitoba last year when a number of people failed to receive wireless emergency alerts on their phones in absence of LTE coverage in their area.
Wireless alerts for real emergencies have saved lives
In addition to these annual public tests, the last year has seen the wireless emergency alert system used for actual emergencies. Since April, 2018 there have been 115 real emergency alerts sent by the wireless system across Canada, for life-threatening hazards such as fires, floods, and tornadoes. Wireless emergency alerts have been credited with saving numerous lives including those who took shelter during tornado outbreaks last summer (CBC News, 2018) and abducted children who were rescued because a member of the public recognized them from an AMBER alert received by their phone (London Free Press, 2019).
These actual alerts have also served to highlight further areas of improvement for the wireless alert system. Authorities who issue alerts have continued to refine what their messages should say, and how often they send them out, after public complaints were received for several AMBER alerts in Ontario. Uneven distribution of alerts has also been a concern, with some users in Manitoba being unable to receive a tornado alert, while other subscribers in Manitoba received an AMBER alert from Ontario. Wireless service providers have responded with updated software and network changes to improve the targeting of alerts.
Despite these challenges, the evidence so far is clear: the wireless emergency alert system in Canada has made significant improvements since its launch only a short time ago, thereby saving lives across the country, and demonstrating that Canadians are safer today than they were last year.
Jacob Westfall, Chief Technology Officer of Public Emergency Alerting Services Inc (PEASI). Jacob is responsible for the public emergency alerting practices, standards and technology that are in PEASI’s public emergency alerting software platform, Alertable. He is a co-author of the Canadian Profile for the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and numerous other national and international public alerting standards and guidelines.
Alert Ready Device Compatibility (no date). Available at https://www.alertready.ca/wireless/
Alert Ready Test – Survey Results (2019). Available at https://peasi.com/alert-ready-tests-survey-results/
CBC News (2018) Dunrobin families credit emergency warning system for saving lives Available at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/dunrobin-tornado-emergency-alert-1.4835076
London Free Press (2019) Tilbury KFC employees helped save Toronto-area boy after Amber Alert Available at https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/tilbury-kfc-employees-spotted-woman-child-from-amber-alert