Wireless emergency alerts one year later, are Canadians safer?

Wireless public alerting has been with us for one year already! Since April 2018, the CRTC has required that all wireless service providers in Canada distribute emergency alerts sent from Canada’s national public alerting system, Alert Ready, to all 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. 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 who tested later saw improved results.

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. 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.

A second test of the wireless alert system took place on November 28, 2018 and demonstrated a marked improvement in the operation of the system. A survey conducted by Public Emergency Alerting Services Inc (PEASI), a company with extensive experience in public alerting in Canada, found that 70% 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 percent of new devices for sale by wireless providers be wireless public alert compatible. As older, non-compatible phones are replaced, the system will reach more and 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 because of no LTE coverage in their area.

In addition to these two 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 and abducted children who were rescued because a member of the public recognized them from an AMBER alert received by their phone.

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.

There is another test of the Alert Ready wireless public alert system scheduled on May 8, 2019. This will provide an opportunity to see how the wireless alert system continues to improve, overall, and its effectiveness across various distribution mediums like TV, radio, social media, and apps that all play a role in Canada’s National Public Alerting System. Again, PEASI will be conducting a survey of the May 8, 2019 test to capture some of this information.

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, saving lives across the country, and demonstrating that Canadians are safer today than they were last year.

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