Expert sounds alarm on Canada's emergency alert system

·7 min read
Alert Ready, Canada's national alert system for TV, cellphones and radio has come under scrutiny during the ongoing public inquiry into Nova Scotia's mass shooting. (CBC - image credit)
Alert Ready, Canada's national alert system for TV, cellphones and radio has come under scrutiny during the ongoing public inquiry into Nova Scotia's mass shooting. (CBC - image credit)

An expert in emergency alerts says Canada has serious issues with its company-led model based on "discriminatory" technology that differs from alert systems worldwide, and should build one that puts the federal government in control.

Michael Hallowes spoke Wednesday during the ongoing public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting on April 18 and 19, 2020, and said he'd also presented his concerns to Canada years before the tragedy.

Hallowes is an independent advisor to governments on the design and delivery of public warning systems, and also helped build and run Australia's alert program.

"It's back to basics, if I may be so bold, about getting it right for the future," Hallowes said.

Currently, the Ontario-based company Pelmorex owns Canada's Alert Ready software system and operates it on behalf of the federal government.

Hallowes said this approach, where the supplier of the alert system also owns it, gives a lot of power to Pelmorex officials because they can choose how they want to handle the alerts or any upgrades to the system.

CBC
CBC

"If it's going to affect the bottom line, that it requires investment to improve the technology to keep pace with … capability requirements, they can choose to say no," Hallowes said.

"In Canada, it's very odd that you've put the commercial supplier in charge."

In most other jurisdictions around the globe, Hallowes said a directive comes from the government that any upgrade would be a condition of the alert supplier's license.

This means a federal minister and their office can be held accountable for the service, Hallowes said. On the next rung of the framework would be the frontline groups like emergency management offices, fire and police — who send the alerts — and then, Hallowes said, "quite deliberately at the bottom" of this ladder are supplier and regulator.

In Canada the system is regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which as of 2018 requires participation from all wireless phone, radio and TV providers.

Canada's alerts, according to commission documents, are now distributed simultaneously via television, radio, the Weather Network app, and LTE devices such as smartphones — but only on 4G networks.

Hallowes said this is a significant problem because many older phones can't access 4G.

He said the alerts should be available to 95 per cent of the population — but Canada fell far short of that mark. When the first Alert Ready tests were done in 2018, Hallowes said only 35 per cent of cell phones received them.

"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."

Instead, most countries use SMS text messages for their alerts, Hallowes said, which can be sent to any cell phone connected to a network in a certain area.

He said this method also allows users on the other end, like police or emergency offices, to gather a "heat map" of cellphone points — randomized to protect privacy — so they can track in real time whether citizens are evacuating an unsafe area.

The SMS option offers a key advantage in active shooter situations where people may be hiding from a dangerous person with a gun, Hallowes said. If someone's phone is on silent, the alert won't override their settings and make a loud sound.

Canadians can't silence alerts

He said this was a devastating lesson to learn after the 2011 Norway shooting, where dozens of teens who were killed by a gunman on a remote island were given away by the alert sounds on their phones.

Australia and other countries have systems that don't override user settings, Hallowes said, but Canada does not. Currently he said someone hiding from a shooter in Canada would have to turn off their phone completely and give up the ability to call for help to ensure their location wasn't revealed.

In February 2015, Hallowes said he attended an alert conference in Alberta where he outlined best practices like SMS. He also spoke about the importance of having guidelines for what an alert system should achieve —and then finding the technology to deliver it.

However, he said Canada has done things the other way around.

"What I found was that CRTC, the Defence Research and Development Canada, and the wireless service providers were dictating their technology was going to be sold to broadcast," Hallowes said.

When Hallowes said he asked for any evaluation on what was behind this decision, he was "firmly told" the alerts would be retrofitted into what the technology could deliver.

RCMP in Nova Scotia considered issuing an alert on April 19 after multiple calls from the provincial Emergency Management Office (EMO), but ultimately that didn't happen.

At the time of the mass shooting, all agencies had to go through EMO to request an alert, which the provincial agency would then issue. The inquiry heard this week that the RCMP and regional police forces in Halifax and Cape Breton had been offered direct access to the alert system in 2016 and 2017, but declined.

Now, both the RCMP and Halifax Regional Police can issue alerts independently, which Hallowes said should be the case for not only all police forces but any first responder groups like fire departments.

In Australia, he said there are 38 organizations that have direct alert access, including eight police forces.

Hallowes also said that Australia's alert system has been streamlined to have a standard of just eight minutes between a 911 call or emergency event, and an alert being sent out.

"I'm always very concerned by something called the paralysis of accuracy, whereby you wait and wait for the perfect situation awareness and you miss telling the public what they need to know right now," Hallowes said.

"If I get it wrong, I'll tell you I got it wrong and I'll correct it. But waiting for this perfection of the information, it doesn't happen."

While Hallowes said he's heard various concerns in Canada of police wanting to avoid alerts because 911 dispatch call centres would be overwhelmed, or people might get tired of the alerts popping up, he's never seen any evidence of this being an issue internationally.

CBC
CBC

Instead of requesting an alert from EMO, the RCMP tweeted late on April 18 about a firearms complaint in Portapique. They turned to Twitter again the next day around 8 a.m. AT to report that it was an active shooter incident.

The RCMP did not release the fact that the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, was driving a mock police car until 10:17 a.m. on April 19. An image of the vehicle was posted to Twitter.

When asked about using social media as emergency communication, Hallowes said it leaves out "a lot of people" who might not have the right app, be following the right accounts, or actively checking their phones at a crucial time.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law, whose firm represents many of the N.S. mass shooting victims' families, repeated her clients' long-standing position that an alert would have kept their loved ones home "tucked inside" on April 19 and not crossing paths with the gunman.

She said an alert with clear instructions would not only have reached more Nova Scotians than a social media post, but properly carried the seriousness of the situation.

CBC
CBC

An alert would have allowed those on social media the ability to "distinguish this horrific event from all of the other content that gets glanced at and scrolled past," McCulloch said.

The inquiry heard that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution in June 2021, echoing many of Hallowes' concerns and calling for a review of the country's public alerting system.

The resolution also asked that the police association be actively involved in the review, with the aim of extending alerting authority to all first responder public safety agencies.

It noted the Pelmorex licence to operate the alert system expires in August 2023, and said Public Safety Canada should "immediately suspend" any pending procurement around the system.

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