How will Canadians know of an incoming missile attack?

It’s Sunday night. You’re laid out on the couch, binge watching Netflix or listening to a podcast. You don’t have cable television and you only listen to live radio in the car.

How do you find out about an imminent threat to your life like, say, the tsunami British Columbians were bracing for — but spared — after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck the Gulf of Alaska on Jan. 23?Or the nuclear missile attack Hawaiians thought was coming during a false alarm on Jan. 13?

In a communication era dominated by handheld devices and cord cutting, public safety agencies have had to develop new ways to get through to people in the event of a massive public emergency.

Hawaiians got a taste of how their state’s mobile alerting system works during their scare. The same thing happened in Japan a few days later. While those systems aren’t perfect, it’s clear that they get through to people even when they’re on the go.

But what about in Canada?

Most Canadians have heard the shrill call of the emergency alert tone on television or over the radio. It periodically interrupts scheduled programming to inform the public of weather emergencies, chemical disasters and Amber Alerts, drawing ire from TV junkies. 

But when it comes to mobile alerts, most Canadians have to either subscribe to apps like the Weather Network’s to receive emergency alerts — which rely on a WiFi or data connection — or subscribe to an SMS message list for text alerts. That’s fine for the lucky few who think to do it, but not very useful for everyone else.

The good news? As of April, all wireless providers will be mandated to push text alert messages to phones in the area where an alert is in place.

“The CRTC mandated all the wireless service providers to be capable of distributing threat-to-life emergency alerts on mobile devices by April 6 of this year,” said Martin Belanger, spokesperson for Pelmorex Corp.

Pelmorex is the company that runs the platform governments across Canada use to send out emergency alerts, whether over television, radio, social media, mobile apps or, as of April, mobile networks.

“Automatically if you are in the zone [of an alert] and you have an LTE compatible device, you will receive an emergency alert.”

Length of notice varies

Depending on the location and nature of an urgent threat to Canadians, different provincial, federal or municipal departments are charged with creating an alert. How quickly an alert reaches the public depends on how many and which channels it needs to go through.

In the case of a nuclear threat, Andrew Gowling, spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said from end to end, an alert would pass through at least four checkpoints before reaching the average Canadian’s ears or eyes.

“In the event of a missile attack, NORAD, who safeguards the sovereign airspace of the United States and Canada, would inform the Department of National Defence of the detected missile,” he said. “DND would then notify appropriate officials. Canadians would then be notified through all available channels, including the media and social media.”  

A mushroom cloud shoots upward during a thermonuclear experiment on Enewatak Atoll in October 1952. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Before Canadians were “notified through all available channels” the appropriate officials would send their alert to Pelmorex, and it is Pelmorex who would distribute it to the available channels via its National Alert Aggregation & Dissemination System.

While neither Gowling nor Belanger could say by deadline how long it would take for a nuclear missile alert to reach Pelmorex from NORAD, Belanger said once an alert reaches Pelmorex, it only takes seconds before it’s blasted out to all the available television, radio, internet and, soon, mobile telecoms channels.

“For alert issuers and for distributors there are different mechanisms in place to ensure the system is always up, live, running and secure,” Belanger said.

“And we constantly look at it and take feedback from our users so that, as public alerting in Canada evolves, we can constantly provide a reliable and secure system.”

If you’d like to know how you can subscribe to receive a mobile alert in the event of a nuclear missile strike or other imminent threat  — at least until April 6, when wireless providers have to be able to send them out automatically — the Pelmorex-run Alert Ready website offers a map of the provinces with links to the options available in each one.