Canada’s Emergency Alert System is Backwards, Should Not Be Privately Owned: Expert

Michael Hallowes, an expert in emergency alert systems, ripped into Canada’s Alert Ready system last Wednesday during the ongoing public inquiry into the mass shootings in Nova Scotia from April 2020 — reports CBC News.

Hallowes, who advises governments across the world on the design and deployment of public alert systems, took great issue with Alert Ready being privately-owned. He also said Canada’s implementation is, in several ways, backwards as compared to the rest of the world.

“In Canada, it’s very odd that you’ve put the commercial supplier in charge.” Alert Ready went live a little over four years ago in 2018. Currently, Alert Ready is owned by Ontario-based Pelmorex, which also operates the system on behalf of the federal government. The company owns The Weather Network.

Hallowes said a nation’s emergency public alert mechanism should be owned by the state itself. That way, the government and the office of a federal minister can be held accountable for the service, not some corporate entity.

The expert also said that this arrangement gives a company like Pelmorex a lot of control over how public alerts are handled and how the system and infrastructure are upgraded, the kind of control that should actually rest with the government.

In Canada, emergency alerts are watched over by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The CRTC has made participation in the alert system mandatory for both residents and wireless, radio, and television providers. Alert Ready sends out emergency messages simultaneously over television, radio, the Weather Network app, and 4G networks — but only 4G networks.

Hallowes said the CRTC’s selection of 4G for the distribution of public alerts was “discriminatory” and limited the system’s reach substantially. According to the expert, emergency alerts should reach 95% of the population. Canada’s Alert Ready, on the other hand, only reached 35% of the nation’s cell phones when the first tests were conducted back in 2018.

“All of my warnings were born out by the results of those tests — that it was not reaching the vast majority because Canada’s choice of technology was discriminatory,” he said. “It did not provide access or reach to the vast majority of cell phone users. And that is still the case today.”

Hallowes also criticized Alert Ready for not letting recipients silence incoming alerts. The expert cited a 2011 shooting in Norway, where dozens of teens were killed by a gunman on a remote island after their locations were given away by alert sounds on their phones.

Public alert system implementations in Australia and other countries are programmed to not override user settings. However, Alert Ready has no such safeguard built-in. The only way for Canadians to silence an incoming emergency alert is to turn their phone off entirely or disable 4G. The alert system will override system settings such as Do Not Disturb mode.

Hallowes said he has repeateedly presented his concerns to the Canadian government for years now. The expert has also strongly advocated for the inclusion of SMS in Alert Ready’s arsenal.

The federal government has tested Alert Ready on a semi-annual basis since its launch, with the most recent test taking place earlier this month.