Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Failings of Canada's Emergency Alert System

Alert Ready
Canada has launched a new emergency alert system to notify their citizens of important information. The problem is, instead of using it as an opportunity to build a new and better system suited for the digital age, they've recreated the decades old system already existing in the US.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I'm not against the alert system. There's a lot of value in building something this important based on a system that's been reliably operating for a long time. But there are a number of problems and missed opportunities.

What is it?

Essentially, it's a system that allows information regarding "threat-to-life" or "threat-to-property" situations to interrupt normal programming on TV and Radio. (Although media is allowed to broadcast alerts with their own staff on their own schedules instead of interrupting programming immediately.) While many notices are sent out daily, only the most important events are flagged to interrupt service. Extra content, like press releases, pictures and maps, can be included in these alerts for news staff to manually upload to websites or push to social media.

There are plenty of situations it's been designed for, such as:
  • Weather emergencies from a tornado or flood.
  • Man-made disasters like a plant failure, chemical spill or train carrying dangerous goods.
  • Amber Alerts.

What about "Worst Case" ?

As defined by something that also involves a major power outage, which would take out internet and communication. Everyone who has a cell phone loses communication. Land lines (home phones) become unreliable due to networks becoming overloaded. Internet / VOIP phones, including those through your cable modem stop working. (Dealt with this myself during a couple power outages and cable phone lines provided by Rogers and Cogeco.)

Unfortunately, there are no regulations or financial support to ensure broadcasters choose the more expensive satellite receivers, which would work if internet was out. This means many radio stations won't have access to the system in these kinds of scenarios.

Don't worry, all cities have their own tested emergency and communication protocols. Radio stations also have methods in place to continue broadcasting during an emergency. (Usually a day or two of generator power and deals to receive fuel in emergencies.) In addition, many families have a car or a neighbor with one if power is out. (More people should own wind-up radios, but I digress.)

The Digital Generation isn't Being Reached

There are less people listening to the radio and the younger generations are becoming very online / mobile media-centric. New cars are even hiding radio features behind menus to bring features like iPod and MP3 integration to the forefront. It's not just those born in the last 30 years. Our society is moving away from conventional media and widely adopting digital ones. While more households are subscribing to TV, in the context of emergency alert, that's only helpful when you're watching it. If the average household has 2 cell phones, why aren't we using that to our advantage? [sources]

I spoke to a group of people involved with Canada's emergency alert system on a couple occasions about reaching more people in todays digital world and they expressed no interest or perceived value in expanding beyond the realm of radio and tv. (Radio and TV people can be very Radio and TV focused.) Some of the examples I gave them were:
  • Regulating Cell Phone Providers
    • Text-messages could be sent to anyone connected to towers in the emergency area.
    • Pictures could be included in situations like an Amber Alert.
      Could you image if everyone around a mall suddenly got a picture text message of a missing child?
  • Regulating Internet Service Providers
    • Browser injection can be used to insert banners around a website you're browsing.
    • This could include text, photos and links to details.
  • Partnerships with GameStations and gaming platforms like Steam
    • Games could be interrupted or a banner could appear on the TV with the alert message, much like an alert would interrupt regular TV.
  • Partnerships with Major Websites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, etc.
    • Facebook already injects notices to ask for disaster relief money in situations like Haiti, Japan and Nepal. This could also be a proactive system.
    • Streaming services could interrupt themselves, again, much like conventional TV.
    • Social media could even ask people in affected areas if you're OK to notify worried friends and family.
    • Websites also know the area you're connected from and could target alerts properly.

Obviously, each of these scenarios introduce more questions, but to not even be interested in looking in to it?

I don't support conventional TV like I support radio. Is it required in an emergency plan? Absolutely. But it's no more deserving than the digital methods I just listed. (Probably less so - I'm sure digital media and games can reach more people with more speed than cable / satellite TV.) If the argument against digital options is "What happens when power is out?" then I say, "TV won't work in that scenario either." If asked, "What if cell networks are overloaded?" then all the more reason to reach out with every possible avenue. If you're looking for more information on what's going on and power is working, you're probably going to turn to internet instead of TV.

Ironically, the Alert Ready campaign claims to "ensure you receive alerts immediately and know when to take action to keep yourself and your family safe" while their own FAQ lists:
  • At this time Alert Ready alerts are not automatically broadcast directly by wireless carriers. However, some companies and government agencies do provide text messaging or mobile apps on a subscription basis that support the delivery of alerts.

Subscription Based Safety

Maybe it's just me, but all those digital options of communicating with people just make sense. Instead, despite The Weather Network already having software you can install on PCs, phones and tablets, which do pop up weather alerts, the only one that advertises "public safety warnings" is a text-message system you have to pay for. Let me rephrase that - If you want to be immediately notified of a threat-to-life situation in Canada, you have to pay a monthly subscription fee.

The Weather Network's PAID alert system

In the "NOW" subscription, you have to manage what city you get alerted for and get charged extra to get alerted for multiple cities. If you travel, you won't get notified correctly unless you keep your profile updated. Cell providers could target your phone with text messages based on which area you were passing through. (Like if you were driving down the 401 past a city with an emergency situation or stopping at a rest stop near an Amber Alert.)

In Conclusion

Implementing what is essentially a cold-war era* emergency alert system that won't reach the majority of the public in a timely manner and may not even function in a worst case scenario is a missed opportunity when you consider that we easily have the technology to reach almost everyone today. It's a good first step, but nobody I spoke to was interested in looking forward at step 2.

Radio and TV companies were forced via regulatory requirements to purchase the equipment to put these systems in place. Partnerships with websites and gaming services would be icing on the cake, but the government also regulates phone and internet providers. Not properly utilizing cell phones in todays world is a glaring error in the dissemination of critical information.

* Yes, the back-end is more feature-rich than cold-war systems, but as for what interacts with the public? You're still just relying on the Radio / TV you have to already be listening to / watching to be interrupted.

If you want some more information, try some of these resources:
  • Alert Ready Campaign
    • For more information on the system, geared toward the public.
    • Links to individual provinces preparedness resources.
  • Pelmorex Public Alerting
    • Parent company of The Weather Network and the people in charge of the alert system.
    • Explore the alert RSS feeds they make available and look at archived alerts.
    • The XML feed uses the tags "polygon" and "geocode" to draw lat / long and tag areas that are affected.
    • These RSS feeds are VERY spammy without a proper aggregator because of the way updates are sent out.
    • Links and Resources for hardware vendors and developers.
  • The Weather Network Weather Apps
  • Free Radio on My Phone
    • Most cell phones have an FM receiver and both Apple and your provider have turned it off.
    • Next Radio can play free over-the-air radio on some Androids with some carriers.
    • In an emergency situation, this could allow every cell phone to receive important information, but you're not allowed.
  • Hydro One Mobile
    • An app with a map of hydro outages in Ontario, Canada and rough details on each. Often shows details for hydro outages not covered by Hydro One service.
  • CDC's Zombie Preparedness
    • Because why not?


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