Emergency alerts will take a while to get right

For the few of you who don’t still have ringing in your ears from that annoying emergency alert sound, today was the second attempt at the first test of the wireless public alerting system in Canada.

Set for 1:55pm local time (2:55pm in Quebec), the alerts started in Newfoundland and Labrador and followed the time zones to B.C. and Yukon. I’ve compiled reports of those alerts in this Twitter thread:

Every province and territory (even Nunavut, which didn’t participate last time) successfully sent out an alert, but that doesn’t mean that everyone successfully got one. There a lot of moving parts to this process, and each one has to be working properly for the alerts to reach people’s TV screens and phones.

Today’s process involved the following steps and groups:

  • Coordination of the emergency alert test, by government agencies
  • Issuing of the emergency alert test by provincial and territorial emergency agencies
  • Distribution of the emergency alert test by the National Public Alerting System
  • Broadcast of the emergency alert test by wireless providers, television providers, mobile applications and television and radio stations
  • Reception of the emergency alert test by compatible set-top boxes and mobile devices

If any of those steps fail, the message doesn’t get through.

The good news is that the first three of those steps worked for all regions, and the broadcasting step worked for most. (We’ll hopefully see soon if all wireless providers in all provinces and territories successfully broadcast the alert, as well as how many TV and radio transmitters did the same.)

That last step is the tricky one, though. To receive the alert, cellphones have to be compatible with wireless public alerting. Later iPhones are, but the list of compatible non-Apple phones is smaller, and varies by provider. The phone also has to be connected to an LTE network when the alert goes out. Many people complained of not receiving an alert. It’s unclear how many were because of incompatible devices and how many for other reasons.

(Some models of phones displayed the test alert as a “Presidential Alert”, which is obviously an American term — it’s the only type of public alert in the U.S. that can’t be opted out of. The Americans tested their system in October.)

The compatibility issue will sort itself out over time, as people upgrade to newer smartphones that are WPA-compatible. In the meantime, people whose phones aren’t compatible can install apps that will display alerts for them (note that for those apps to work, the phone needs to be connected to the internet):

  • Alertable (iOS, Android) — Just the alerts. Can set multiple locations or have the phone’s GPS follow you. Issues alerts with the official alert tone. Can also silence non-critical advisory alerts.
  • Red Cross Be Ready app (iOS, Android) — Alerts and emergency preparedness guides. Note that my app was completely silent today and doesn’t show any alerts having been received.
  • The Weather Network app (iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows) — Alerts along with weather information. Pelmorex, the company behind TWN, administers the national public alerting system. This app is pretty chunky, and in my experience tends to slow down your phone. An app is also available on some smart TVs and other platforms.

The company behind the website alertable.ca is conducting an online survey of how people received alerts. The survey unfortunately doesn’t ask people what wireless provider they have, or what model phone, both of which are key bits of information. I can’t find a similar survey being conducted by an official government agency.

There are also complications even for alerts that successfully went through. Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia sent out English-only alerts. Other provinces like Manitoba and PEI correctly coded English and French alerts, while some like Ontario and Quebec sent out long bilingual alerts.

There were also several reports of people getting alerts for far-away regions, like the Nunavut being received in Toronto and Winnipeg.

And there’s the simple fact that this was a planned test, something agencies prepared for in advance. In cases of real unplanned emergencies, a lot more things go wrong. Localized emergencies can end up going out to entire provinces, either by accident or because the person issuing the alert doesn’t know how to limit it. Alerts can be incorrectly encoded with a higher or lower severity than intended. (Alertable.ca issued a “critical” life-threatening alert asking for feedback on the test)

Beyond Amber alerts (which cause their own problems, as I discussed in May), emergency life-threatening alerts are pretty rare, especially in urban areas. Which means there won’t be many real-world scenarios for emergency services agencies to hone their skills in issuing these alerts.

So until all these issues are ironed out, which could take years, we need to accept that not every device is going to receive an emergency alert at all times. The best thing to do is have access to multiple redundant sources of information — follow an emergency alert agency on social media, install apps on your phone, sign up for email or text message alerts if your provincial agency offers that service.

Unless another special test is ordered between now and then, the next national test of the public alerting system will happen next May, during national emergency preparedness week. A user-visible test is to occur annually during that week, and tests that aren’t visible to users take place several times a year.

8 thoughts on “Emergency alerts will take a while to get right

  1. media man

    Well mine worked on my Huawei P20..vuy yes The key here is LTE..if I was at home, my phone would have been on WiFi, so I assume I wouldn’t have gotten it..
    Another thing to look into, that’s a weak link.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      if I was at home, my phone would have been on WiFi, so I assume I wouldn’t have gotten it.

      That would be an incorrect assumption. The alert isn’t sent through the internet. If your phone is capable of receiving a phone call on an LTE network, it’s capable of receiving a wireless alert.

      Reply
  2. Anonymous

    I got the alert today on my phone. Very annoying sound. For some reason, mine was being read out by a robotic voice. And I realized, that robot voices read french very badly.

    I can’t wait for future uses for annoying the public.

    – Zombie Apocalypse
    – Black Friday sales announcements
    – Election day notices
    – Transport Quebec alerts about Driving and Texting while you’re driving.
    – Pay your Taxes deadline alerts.
    – Happy New Year alert.
    – SAQ going on strike so please stock up on booze alerts.
    – Nuclear Attack from North Korea. Oh wait, that was a Hawaii alert error.

    With all the hacking going on, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody manages to send out nutty alerts. And if they don’t, we can always depend on the government to send out nutty alerts.

    As if we weren’t wired up enough. Lets be bothered even more.
    Soon they’ll be blaring out message like some sort of communist society. Obey! Obey!
    What a wonderful world we live in…now!

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I can’t wait for future uses for annoying the public.

      – Zombie Apocalypse
      – Black Friday sales announcements
      – Election day notices
      – Transport Quebec alerts about Driving and Texting while you’re driving.
      – Pay your Taxes deadline alerts.
      – Happy New Year alert.
      – SAQ going on strike so please stock up on booze alerts.
      – Nuclear Attack from North Korea. Oh wait, that was a Hawaii alert error.

      Except for the zombie apocalypse, which sounds like a pretty decent reason to alert people, none of the examples given are valid reasons for issuing emergency alerts. Emergency broadcast alerts have existed for decades without being abused in this way.

      Reply
  3. Brett

    My phone isn’t compatible and its a Galaxy J5 (16). I use The Weather Network app for Android and it actully doesn’t slow down phone. I can’t say the same for a phone with less ram or ios version. The alerts worked on app for unsupported phones.

    Reply
  4. Dan

    My ears aren’t ringing because I am a normal person that keeps their phone on silent 90% of the time. It was sent out in the middle of the day, so any smart person at work should’ve had it on silent.

    This classic Canadian incompetence. Instead of taking a system that works perfectly in the US and has been running for years now, Canada needs to reinvent the wheel and produce a mediocre service that doesn’t give the levels of alerts that can be opted out of.

    Reply

Leave a Reply