Alert? What alert? - Canadian Government Executive
AccountabilityService deliveryTechnology
October 11, 2018

Alert? What alert?

Tornado warnings broadcast a few weeks ago in Eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec are being praised for saving lives. But, as is too often the case in the high-tech world, people who didn’t receive the warning are being told they have themselves to blame.

Emergency alerts in Canada have traditionally suffered from inadequate last-mile distribution. Skilled Environment Canada meteorologists have issued warnings, watches, and various other bulletins for decades. With fewer people watching TV and listening to traditional radio, their warnings often don’t make it to those who needed it the most. Email services and third-party software tried to fill the gap; it was not particularly effective.

When tornado warnings are issued, minutes count. Sometimes even seconds. Canada’s new Alert Ready system is a solid step in the right direction. Alerts from government agencies are aggregated by Palmorex Corp, the Canadian company that owns The Weather Network. The National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System distributes the messages to last-mile distributors (television, radio, mobile operators, and some social media sites) via satellite and the Internet.

The XML-formatted messages include the type of event, various textual information in both official languages, the geographic areas to which the alert applies, flags to tell broadcasters and mobile phone operators if immediate transmission of the message is required, and even pointers to sound files.

As of April 6, 2018, the CRTC requires mobile phone providers to “deliver potential life-saving emergency alert messages to compatible mobile wireless devices that are connected to an LTE wireless network.” This watered-down requirement creates serious gaps.

If you have a 3G phone, you’re out of luck. This places many seniors, low-income Canadians, and others with basic phones at higher risk.

Phones must be Wireless Public Alerting compatible. For Apple customers that means iPhone 5s or newer. Android phones appear to be hit and miss.

Perhaps least excusable, your phone may not alert you if on mute or Do Not Disturb. When you slide an iPhone’s switch to silence the ringer, it also silences alerts relating to potential life-threatening events. Your phone’s alarm will still ring to wake you in the morning, and your Tile app will override the switch setting to help you find your phone, but a tornado warning will remain absurdly silent.

That is exactly what happened to me last Friday. Neither I, nor the people around me, want to hear my phone constantly ring and beep. It’s generally considered impolite to take your phone off the vibrate setting, and configuring Do Not Disturb while sleeping is critical. So there I was, with an iPhone X in my pocket and an Apple Watch on my wrist, when I heard about the tornado warning from my neighbour.

I thought it was an isolated incident and contacted Apple for clarification. The first support representative was surprised, but upon escalation, I was told that emergency alerts do indeed follow the switch setting, and no override option is available to Apple customers.

Pelmorex’s Alert Ready website explains: “A compatible wireless device that is set to silent will display an emergency alert, but you might not hear the emergency alert sound. The emergency alert sound will usually play at whatever the current volume setting is on the wireless device, so if your wireless device is set to silent, no sound will accompany the emergency alert message. However, this behaviour can differ depending on your wireless device and in some instances, the alert sound may override your user settings.”

Rogers helpfully directed me to their support article, which states, “To receive audible alerts, confirm that the volume on your device is turned on (not on mute) and Do Not Disturb is turned off.”

The CRTC, who regulates the industry, should be looking out for the best interests of Canadians. They did not respond to email inquiries.

There are two obvious solutions. First and foremost, the CRTC should mandate an audio alert. If a message is important enough to interrupt TV and radio broadcasts, every mobile phone in the area should light up and sing.

Apple and other mobile phone vendors have the opportunity to do the right thing: Add an option to make every emergency alert audible. And, while they’re at it since an iPhone can share voice calls and SMS with a Mac, why not share emergency alerts as well?

Nobody in their right mind would design a smoke detector with a mute switch or an option to remain silent at night. Next time an emergency alert is issued, your phone will probably display a message, and it might sound an alert. But rest assured, double-clicking your Tile will make your phone ring at maximum volume every time.

About this author

Eric Jacksch

Eric Jacksch is a leading cybersecurity analyst with over 20 years of practical security experience. He has consulted to some of the world's largest banks, governments, automakers, insurance companies and postal organizations. Eric is a regular columnist for IT in Canada and was a regular columnist for Monitor Magazine and has contributed to several other publications.

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