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Retesting of error-ridden national alert system could take months

It could be this time next year before Canada’s new mobile emergency alert system is tested again on a wide scale as the players involved in last week’s failed tests try to figure out what went wrong.

As an Amber Alert sounded for a missing boy in Ontario on Monday, who has since been found, officials said the warning system is up and running, but public expectations that all compatible devices connected to a wireless network should receive alerts may be too high.

The system, which was supposed to be fully operational nationwide under regulator orders by April 6, was put to the test across most of the country last week.

The first test, on Monday in Quebec, didn’t sound at all due to a coding error, which the system operator said was fixed within a couple of hours.

Later that day, some test alerts were heard and felt on mobile devices in Ontario, but many wireless subscribers didn’t receive any signals.

On Wednesday, testing conducted in Atlantic Canada appeared to go as hoped while there was sporadic success across western provinces as well as in Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Valuable lessons learned

Pelmorex, the company that operates the Alert Ready system, said while expectations for the test results may have been high, those involved in conducting the live tests learned valuable lessons.

“If everyone thought their phone was going to go off, maybe there was an expectation there that wasn’t met,” said Paul Temple, the company’s senior vice-president of regulatory and strategic affairs.

“But in terms of the technical aspects [of the tests], I think it was exactly what we needed to do.”

The company, which also owns The Weather Network, said it confirmed all of the alert test messages it distributed were successfully transmitted to wireless, or so-called “last mile” service providers.

“In Ontario and all the tests on Wednesday, we got acknowledgement messages back from all of the carriers that they had received the test messages,” said Temple.

The CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement the system to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats, including severe weather, such as tornadoes and floods, as well as terrorist threats and Amber Alerts.

Cars drive past a highway sign cancelling a missile alert on the H-1 Freeway in Honolulu.(Anthony Quintano/Associated Press)

A similar system in the United States made headlines earlier this year when an emergency official in Hawaii mistakenly sent an alert about a potential incoming ballistic missile. Human error and inadequate safeguards were blamed for the false alarm.

In most provinces and territories, Pelmorex provides a platform that emergency officials use to create alert messages. Pelmorex then delivers the alerts to TV, radio, cable, satellite and wireless providers.

But the company has no way of knowing whether the service providers actually distribute the messages, except for what it sees or hears being broadcast.

Everything is automated and is supposed to take just a few seconds once the alert messages are written and delivered.

Testing is conducted frequently on internal platforms, but it’s only during the live tests when officials can determine that the system is performing as it should.

CRTC requires annual testing

The CRTC requires that live-to-public testing be conducted annually, although there’s nothing preventing such tests sooner.

But mobile service providers will need time to gather the information they require to properly make changes before the next set of tests, said Temple.

“There are so many different manufacturers, models within manufacturers, software, upgrades that may or may not have been loaded and user settings,” he said.

“Collectively, the carriers are going to have to sit down and analyze and better understand why one phone might receive [an alert] and one phone might not. At a minimum, we’ve got to give the carriers time to sort through how the various cellphones behaved on the tests that just took place.”

In the meantime, if there was a real emergency warranting an alert, the system is activated, even if many devices might still not receive an alert signal, he said.

“If there was a threat-to-life warning, the carriers are connected and they would get that message and pass it on to whatever the area is that is affected by the incident.”

In fact, devices buzzed and sounded for an Amber Alert Monday in Ontario, although it wasn’t known whether all devices that were supposed to receive it actually did.

The alert was issued by Ontario Provincial Police who were searching for an eight-year-old boy missing in the Thunder Bay region, but who has since been located.

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