The technology exists to fix some of the design flaws in Canada’s mobile emergency alert system that was tested last week for an Amber Alert issued in Ontario, some experts say. A smartphone and a television receive visual and audio alerts to test Alert Ready, a national public alert system, in Montreal on Monday, May 7, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Changes needed for ‘Alert Ready’ mass emergency system

‘You need to strike this careful balance between alerting people to lots of problems — and doing it too often’

The technology exists to fix some of the design flaws in Canada’s mobile emergency alert system that was tested last week for an Amber Alert issued in Ontario, some experts say.

The ”Alert Ready” program — which sounds an alarm on LTE-connected smart phones during a crisis — could be more effective at alerting people to emergencies, they said.

“The approach we’re taking with mobile devices is the same we had in 1940, when we had sirens installed on buildings,” said Cosmin Munteanu, a professor of computer science and information at the University of Toronto.

“There’s no nuance involved.”

He said that because of smart phone technology, designers had the opportunity to cater details of the alarm — its sound, the colour that pops up on the screen — to the emergency it’s alerting people to.

Munteanu said that with the system as it is now, people who hear the blaring alarm associated with these emergency alerts for a missing child but don’t have an opportunity to read the text for some reason might believe they’re in imminent danger.

And in fact, several police forces in Ontario received complaints from members of the public last week when an alarm sounded on cell phones to announce an Amber Alert triggered by the disappearance of a boy outside of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Half an hour later, the sound rang out again. This time, the text of the alert was displayed in French. It would go off two more times — once in each official language — that day to announce the child was found safe.

Officers in two Ontario cities — Kingston and Guelph — tweeted that it was not appropriate to call 911 about the matter.

The incident left some questioning the inclusion of Amber Alerts in the mobile emergency system, which has no opt-out option in Canada, as mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

“If somebody in Toronto is alerted to an abducted child or a missing child in Thunder Bay, they can’t help,” said John Rainford, director of The Warning Project, founded by a group of experts who help organizations communicate during emergencies.

“But then also, that person in Toronto is like, ‘Okay, next time my phone rings in this weird sound, I don’t care,’” he said. “And I want them to care.”

A similar system exists in the United States, but people can choose not to receive notifications about Amber Alerts or local emergencies by modifying settings on their cell phones. They cannot, however, opt out of receiving directives from the White House.

It becomes a balancing act for authorities, he said.

“You need to strike this careful balance between alerting people to lots of problems — which is a good thing because then they’re aware that if that weird sound comes over my smart phone, that means something weird’s happening — and doing it too often.”

But Rainford said it’s a good thing that these kinks are happening now, before the masses need to be informed of a crisis on a larger scale.

“That’s actually part of the system,” he said. “You want to do that when (more) lives are not at stake.”

The Canadian Press

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