Mobile phone emergency alerts about missing children, natural disasters to become mandatory

Canada’s telecom regulator says all wireless service providers must be able to send emergency alerts to customers’ cellphones, and has set a deadline for it to happen.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ordered that by April 6, 2018, everyone on an LTE network must be able to receive the same public alerts now broadcast on radio and TV.

The types of events for alerts include natural disasters like fires or floods, or Amber Alerts about abducted children.

“We know that more and more Canadians rely mostly on their cellphones. You carry your cellphone, not necessarily your TV or even your radio,” CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao said in an interview.

In Alberta, many cellphone customers in Fort McMurray received alerts from the province’s emergency management agency when the city was evacuated due to the massive wildfire in 2016.

But the wireless alerts weren’t mandatory — customers either downloaded an app on their phones, or registered with the provincial agency to receive emergency texts.

Valladao said the mandatory alerts will have a special tone and vibration so that people will know it’s not just an ordinary email or text. A banner, in English and French, will appear on the screen stating that there is an alert and that details of the alert will follow.

Messages will only be sent to your phone if you are in the affected area. And, Valladao said, the system will work if you are roaming. That means if you live in Toronto and are spending you holiday at a cottage in Alberta where a tornado warning has just been issued, the message will reach your phone.

A date for the launch of the service will be announced once the wireless industry has met all the necessary standards, the CRTC says.

The commission’s decision follows a consultation that began with the wireless industry in 2016, as well as a trial period in Durham, Ont.

“We are fully in support of anything that uses the power of wireless technology for good,” said Sophie Paluk, spokesperson for Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

“We think that it’s an incomparable safety tool for all involved, from first responders to the public. So we’re very supportive of the initiative.”

According to the CRTC, the year-long delay before the service becomes mandatory will allow carriers time to overcome technical challenges to connect with government alert systems. It will also allow time for a public education campaign so people know what’s going on when an alert is issued and their phones start buzzing.

Satellite wireless services, which serve Canada’s north, will be exempt from carrying the mandatory alerts since the messages cannot be geographically targeted within the satellite beam’s large footprints.

Some older phones may require a software upgrade, Valladao said.

In its policy decision posted online, the CRTC noted that many emergency management organizations wanted mandatory alerts on all cellular systems, not just LTE.

But the agency said approximately 97.4 per cent of the Canadian population had access to an LTE network in 2016, and wireless providers told them that getting a system to work on all its pre-LTE networks would add time and cost.

Opting out of the alerts will not be possible, according to the policy decision.

A spokesperson for Alberta’s minister of municipal affairs, which is the department responsible for emergency management, said it’s difficult to know whether mandatory alerts would have affected the Fort McMurray evacuation. But she says any improvement in communication is a plus.

“We are committed to ongoing improvement and enhancement of our provincial alerting system and support the decision of the CRTC as a means to reach Albertans directly during an emergency,” Melinda Steenbergen said in an email.

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