Canada’s Emergency Alerts Are Broken by Design

[Read the whole post before you come after me, okay?]

On Thursday morning the entire province of Ontario was woken up, first at 3:04 AM, then again at 3:36 AM, by an Amber Alert issued by the Brantford police. It was the sixth Amber Alert issued by Ontario police since the emergency alert system was extended to mobile phones. Though we live in Quebec, for some reason we get all the Ontario Amber Alerts, so we got it too. The usual flurry of complaints ensued: despite the backlash against people clueless enough to call 911 to complain about being woken up by an Amber Alert, the complaints seem to be getting worse.

I think I know why people are complaining about being woken up by Amber Alerts. It’s not because they’re being selfish bastards who don’t care about children. (Or it’s not just because.) It’s because the way Amber Alerts have been integrated into the emergency alert system in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, is broken by design. And unless it’s fixed, more lives will be put at risk than are saved.

Let me explain.

The U.S. Emergency Alert System has different tiers of alerts and allows users to opt out of certain categories of alerts, including Amber Alerts; the system also narrowly targets weather and other alerts by region, so that people don’t tune out alerts that aren’t meant for them.

When Canada’s emergency alert system was designed, on the other hand, the CRTC decided not to distinguish between different kinds of alerts, and you can’t opt out from any of them. Which means that an Amber Alert (which in most cases is because a child has been snatched by a non-custodial family member rather than a complete stranger) is given exactly the same urgency as an earthquake, forest fire, terrorist attack, tornado, tsunami or incoming nuclear missile.

The second problem is operational. I found it odd that though I lived in Quebec, I got all the Ontario Amber Alerts. (I suspect it’s because I’m near the border.) Even more odd was that I was getting alerts from across Ontario—even one from Thunder Bay, which is 1,400 kilometres away. Surely, I thought, they’re geotargeting these Amber Alerts. Turns out they aren’t, as Global News’s Mike Drolet reports:

Canadian police don’t support geo-targeting because of how fast suspects can move away from a crime scene. OPP Staff Sgt. Stacy Whaley pointed to two Amber Alerts they’ve issued this year.

“One, the abduction occurred in Sudbury and the child was located in Toronto,” he says. “And the other one, the abduction occurred in the GTA and the child was located in the Sarnia area.”

Global News

Meanwhile, other emergency alerts are geotargeted. I got every one of Ontario’s Amber Alerts, but people outside the Ottawa-Gatineau area wouldn’t have gotten the emergency alerts regarding the tornadoes that hit last September. I did, but then I should have: the system worked as it should. (Meanwhile, when a tornado tore through east-end Ottawa last month, not everyone in the tornado’s path got an emergency alert.)

These two decisions—to make only one level of alert, and to make Amber Alerts province-wide—mean that Amber Alerts, which are much more common than any other alert, may be the only emergency alerts people ever see, outside of system tests. And that’s a problem.

Amber Alerts are a good idea wrapped in a thousand layers of moral panic. We want abducted children found, but there’s also a sense that our reaction is disproportionate when it comes to abducted children versus other children at risk (for some reason we’re much less agitated about children in remote reserves killing themselves at disproportionate rates—or, you know, migrant children in U.S. concentration camps). If the emergency alert system can’t tell the difference in importance between incoming nuclear missile and non-custodial parent grabbed their kid, we certainly can. And if the only emergency alerts we receive are Amber Alerts from halfway across the next province over . . .

. . . we’ll start tuning out emergency alerts altogether. We’ll turn our phones off at night, or we’ll learn to sleep through the alert’s alarm.

And that’s a big problem if the next emergency alert is something we do need to take immediate action on.

You can’t tell people to turn off their phones at night because some emergency alerts need to wake you up: if an evacuation order has been given because a forest fire or a burst dam is threatening your town, you have to go, now.

Thing is, the way the emergency alert system operates makes sense as it is—if you leave mobile phones out of it. If you’re sending Amber Alerts to radio and television stations and variable-message signs, it makes sense to send out multiple alerts in the middle of the night, across as wide an area as possible. “Let’s wake up the entire province” is what you do when mobile phones are an afterthought, a secondary channel, when in fact adding mobile phones to Amber Alerts made them the primary channel for those alerts.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the system accommodate itself to the primary recipients of these alerts, if only to ensure that these alerts continue to receive public support. It’s not insensitive to suggest, as the CBC’s Robyn Urback has, that the system can be improved. Adding mobile phones to the emergency alert system was a game-changer: we need to acknowledge that fact, and adjust the system to fit, not carry on as though nothing has changed.