Real Amber Alert sounds as officials probe how mobile alert system tests failed

An emergency alert is seen on a mobile phone in Toronto on May 7, 2018. It could be this time next year before Canada's new mobile emergency alert system is tested on a wide scale again as the players involved in last week's failed tests figure out what went wrong. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kat McCallum

OTTAWA - As an Amber Alert sounded for a missing boy in Ontario on Monday, some mobile users questioned the effectiveness of the country's new wireless emergency alert system, while others complained about receiving the messages in the first place.

The authentic alert, issued by police who were searching for an eight-year-old boy north of Thunder Bay, Ont., came one week after tests of the Alert Ready system failed to reach large numbers of mobile service subscribers and as service providers and emergency officials tried to unravel what went wrong during the nation-wide preview.

Pelmorex, the company which operates the system, said it could be a year before it is tested again on a wide scale, although it noted the system was functional — even if messages might not reach all intended devices.

It also warned that public expectations that all compatible devices connected to a wireless network should receive alerts may be too high.

The system, which was supposed to be fully operational nationwide under regulator orders by April 6, was put to the test across most of the country last week.

The first test, last Monday in Quebec, didn't sound at all due to a coding error, which the system operator said was fixed within a couple of hours.

Later that day, some test alerts were heard and felt on mobile devices in Ontario, but many wireless subscribers didn't receive any signals.

On Wednesday, testing conducted in Atlantic Canada appeared to go as hoped while there was sporadic success across western provinces as well as in Yukon and Northwest Territories.

A spokesman for Bell said a "network configuration issue" prevented its customers in Ontario from receiving the test message last Monday. But by Wednesday it had fixed the problem, resulting in positive tests elsewhere in the country, said Marc Choma.

Still, Bell urged subscribers to make sure they had a compatible phone and that their devices were updated with the most recent operating systems.

Rogers said it was also providing its customers with a checklist to make sure their devices are compatible and that they have the necessary software upgrades.

Pelmorex said while expectations for the test results may have been high, those involved in conducting the live tests learned valuable lessons.

"If everyone thought their phone was going to go off, maybe there was an expectation there that wasn't met," said Paul Temple, the company's senior vice president of regulatory and strategic affairs.

"But in terms of the technical aspects (of the tests), I think it was exactly what we needed to do."

The company, which also owns The Weather Network, said it confirmed all of the alert test messages it distributed were successfully transmitted to wireless, or so-called "last mile" service providers.

The CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement the system to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats, including severe weather, such as tornadoes and floods, as well as terrorist threats and Amber Alerts. There are no opting-out provisions, although wireless subscribers can avoid hearing startling audio messages by turning their devices off or to vibrate.

But some mobile users complained — on social media, and even to the police — that Monday's Amber Alert messages were an intrusion on their lives.

"First 'legitimate #AlertReady notification is an Amber Alert for an area 1,000 kilometres away," Al Payne wrote on Twitter.

"That probably doesn’t need to be sent to all phones in the province. If the messages aren't relevant they'll soon be ignored altogether."

Police in Kingston, Ont., said they had received several complaints about the alert, and urged mobile users to direct their disapproval elsewhere.

"If you have concerns or complaints, contact your service provider."

In most provinces and territories, Pelmorex provides a platform that emergency officials use to create alert messages. Pelmorex then delivers the alerts to TV, radio, cable, satellite and wireless providers.

But the company said it had no way of knowing whether the service providers actually distribute the messages, except for what it sees or hears being broadcast.

Everything is automated and is supposed to take just a few seconds once the alert messages are written and delivered. And when working properly, alerts are supposed to be localized, not necessarily province- or territory-wide.

Testing is conducted frequently on internal platforms, but it's only during the live tests when officials can determine that the system is performing as it should.

The CRTC requires that live-to-public testing be conducted annually, although there's nothing preventing such tests sooner.

But mobile service providers will need time to gather the information they require to properly make changes before the next set of tests, said Temple.

"There are so many different manufacturers, models within manufacturers, software, upgrades that may or may not have been loaded and user settings," he said.

"Collectively, the carriers are going to have to sit down and analyze and better understand why one phone might receive (an alert) and one phone might not. At a minimum, we've got to give the carriers time to sort through how the various cellphones behaved on the tests that just took place."

The alert issued Monday by Ontario Provincial Police was later cancelled after the boy missing in the Thunder Bay region was found safe.


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