Canada’s emergency alert system needs to fix messaging before technology: experts

Click to play video 'Pickering Nuclear Generating Station alert issued in error, investigation underway' Pickering Nuclear Generating Station alert issued in error, investigation underway
WATCH: Pickering Nuclear Generating Station alert issued in error

An emergency alert mistakenly sent out about a nuclear “incident” in Ontario has triggered a new wave of questions about the warning system and whether it’s performing as hoped.

At barely 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, an alert lit up screens across the province, warning of an ongoing incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, just east of Toronto.

A follow-up alert was sent nearly two hours after the original notification, saying it was a mistake.

READ MORE: Ontarians demand answers after emergency alert sent ‘in error’

The Ontario government claims the alert was issued during a routine training exercise by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre. It apologized for the error, but the correction has hardly quashed concerns from Canadians about the system and how a message like that could be mistakenly broadcast. Questions and complaints have flooded social media since the weekend glitch.

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The problems lie with the lack of specificity in messaging and delivery, according to Terry Flynn, who teaches crisis management and communications at McMaster University.

The content of the message was muddled, Flynn said.

Click to play video 'Emergency alert for ‘incident’ at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station was sent in error' Emergency alert for ‘incident’ at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station was sent in error
Emergency alert for ‘incident’ at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station was sent in error

While the alert said “NO abnormal release of radioactivity” had been recorded and those nearby did not need to take “protective action,” it also said emergency staff were “responding to the situation” and urged people to stay tuned for further information.

If a nuclear event was, in fact, happening, Canadians need clear and concise information and instruction, Flynn said.

“We have to be purposeful and mindful of how people interpret these messages,” he told Global News via phone.

“It’s like a doctor going to tell a patient they have cancer, but they have the most treatable form of cancer and they have a 99 per cent survival rate. As soon as somebody hears cancer — they stop processing. I didn’t read anything beyond ‘an incident at a nuclear plant’ until later on. I stopped short.”

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READ MORE: Investigation underway into Pickering nuclear alert sent in error

The targeting of the messages via the Alert Ready system also needs improvements, according to Flynn. While the alert was directed at those in a 10-kilometre radius of the plant, people in the GTHA, the Niagara region, and as far as 50 kilometres away, all got the same message.

“We want to target the people who are most in need of the message and most at risk because of the incident, using geolocation or geotagging,” he said. “Quite frankly, people are growing skeptical about whether these alerts are even valuable.”

He said the growing skepticism comes with risk.

“It could lead to people ignoring them,” he said. “We have too many messages to process and this goes into our automatic cognitive garbage pail.”

The Alert Ready system has faced criticism for situations involving Amber Alerts. Some have questioned why it’s necessary to receive a Toronto-based Amber Alert when they’re hundreds of kilometres away in Timmins, for example.

But the scope of the Pickering alert likely speaks to the type of emergency the system was warning about — whether real or not — said Jack Rozdilsky, an expert in disaster and emergency management at York University.

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Click to play video 'Amber alert leads to angry 9-1-1 calls' Amber alert leads to angry 9-1-1 calls
Amber alert leads to angry 9-1-1 calls

“From a public safety perspective, less damage can potentially be done by alerting people over a wide area where a situation may develop,” said Rozdilsky.

In 2019, Ontario had 49 emergency system alerts — 16 being Amber Alerts and 33 for tornados. Canada, overall, had a total of 131, according to its data.

The alert about Pickering is the first time the Alert Ready system sent out a nuclear-related message.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon, that everyone has a device in their hands, that we can send out communication at this mass level,” Rozdilsky said. “What I think we’re seeing here is the system being worked out, adjustments being made as we go. The incident on Sunday illustrates that these systems are there, lurking in the background all the time.”

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READ MORE: Feds have no way to measure how many Canadians receive emergency alerts

Ontario announced an investigation into the alert the same day.

Human error is being looked at as a possible cause, according to Sylvia Jones, Ontario’s solicitor general. Jones said the system is tested twice a day.

While an investigation will ultimately determine the type of error, both Flynn and Rozdilsky believe the technology performed as it should — it sent out a direct alert to the masses about a possible emergency.

“It’s important to separate the technology of the delivery system from the organizational factors that go into the decisions that are made and how the messages are sent out,” Rozdilsky told Global News. “Thirdly, is the actual content of the message and whether the content is accurately reflecting the situation.”

He pointed to a similar error in Hawaii in 2018 when officials mistakenly sent out an alert about an incoming ballistic missile, which turned out to be a false alarm.

“That was a mistake by an operator, but at the same time, the investigation showed that the way the menus were designed in the system could’ve been done better to assist the operator in making selections,” he said. “It could be a combination of human and technology.”

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Click to play video 'Lethbridge police explain criteria behind Amber Alerts' Lethbridge police explain criteria behind Amber Alerts
Lethbridge police explain criteria behind Amber Alerts

Issues with the emergency management system in Ontario were highlighted in a 2017 report by the province’s auditor general, who found the provincial emergency management programs needed both better oversight and coordination.

The next step in this saga is learning from the mistake, Flynn said.

“We have the technology to be able to do this in a timely, concentrated and focused way. Organizations that are fundamentally crisis-prepared are learning organizations,” he said.

“Somebody made a mistake. We’re pretty forgiving people, but we did we learn from this and how do we guarantee that this will never happen again?”

— With files from the Canadian Press