When Black Friday struck Edmonton on July 31, 1987, cell phones were the size of a brick and only made calls. Today, we can slip a mobile phone in our pocket and it is our lifeline to the world.
Yet, as advanced as mobile phones are they still lack one key ability in Canada: delivering alerts in the event of an emergency. But that is about to change.
New directives ordered by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in April will require Canada’s wireless operators install technology to transmit emergency messages to compatible phones without the need for any additional apps. The alerts will only be accessible by those who have access to an LTE mobile network.
Currently in Canada, users require an app on their phone – like the one provided by the Alberta government – in order to receive emergency notifications. People without an app installed would not receive alerts that an emergency situation is happening in their area.
“It has been something we have been calling for, for some time,” said Tom Sampson, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. “We know what works. We’ve seen it work in other jurisdictions outside of Canada.”
“Maybe even 90 per cent of the public have a cell phone within reach.”
Unlike an app where users can decide whether or not to have it installed, there will be no “opt-out” for messages delivered by the wireless public alert system.
Among the situations when mandatory alerts will be sent are environmental disasters like tornadoes, wildfires, or flash floods; public emergencies like terrorism, large riots or AMBER alerts and other events like a meteor, geomagnetic storm, or the disruption of 911 service.
“We will not be using this system to just tell people to stay away from an intersection because it has heavy traffic,” Sampson said. “This will be for emergency notifications – those kinds of things where people might be in danger, and a speedy notification will save lives.”
The CRTC has set a deadline of April 2018 for wireless providers to implement the technology required for wireless public alerts. At that time, half of the phones sold in the country will need to be compatible with receiving alerts. By 2019, all phones sold in Canada will need to be capable.
“If we implement in April, it will only get better over time,” Sampson said. “We know that some people won’t have new cell phones, and it might take years for some people to come online.”
“I think it’s life-saving, I think it’s life altering, and I’m proud of the CRTC to make the decision.”
Wireless emergency alerts have been available in other countries for a number of years. In the United States, a system which broadcasts weather warnings, AMBER alerts and Presidential messages has been operational for roughly a decade. In Japan, cell phones have been required to be capable of receiving early earthquake warning alerts since 2007.