Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Canada’s telecom regulator is studying how various phones respond to emergency alerts. File photo from Aug. 11, 2019.

The Canadian Press

Canada’s telecom regulator is studying how various phones respond to emergency alerts after receiving complaints that the alarms override silent modes on some devices and not others.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tested smartphones to identify which generate audible alarms when set to the silent, airplane or do-not-disturb modes, according to a briefing note obtained by The Globe and Mail under the Access to Information Act.

“It is not clear which phones are causing the overriding sounds to be generated, and under what setting conditions,” the document reads. “Information from service providers on the effects of alerts on devices they sell is not consistent with information being received [from] complainants.”

Story continues below advertisement

Jack Rozdilsky, a professor of disaster and emergency management at York University, said the issue isn’t the fact that the alerts override the sound settings on some users’ mobile devices – it’s that they aren’t doing so consistently. The CRTC study is a step in the right direction, he added.

“We need to understand the baseline of how these alert systems work for all kinds of devices,” Prof. Rozdilsky said, adding that such data are needed before the system can be improved.

The national emergency alerting system, which began warning Canadians about potentially life-threatening situations through their mobile phones two years ago, has been credited with saving lives. But it has also drawn controversy, with some people complaining about being awoken in the middle of the night by Amber Alerts, saying that they are useless in helping to locate missing children at that hour.

Recent, high-profile incidents involving the alerting system have also prompted criticisms. In January, residents of the Greater Toronto Area were roused from their beds early one Sunday morning by an alert about a supposed incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. It was later revealed that the message was sent in error – no incident had occurred.

And in April, residents of Nova Scotia questioned why police used Twitter to warn the public of an active shooter rather than immediately sending an alert to their mobile devices.

“There’s no shortage of controversy and focus on these systems right now,” Prof. Rozdilsky said, adding that many people have questions about the way the mass notification system is being rolled out.

“To a certain extent, we are still in a trial-and-error period, figuring out how this works,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

The emergency alerting technology used in the United States allows people to opt out of receiving certain types of messages, such as those for missing children, although presidential alerts used for the most dire national threats cannot be disabled. Canada’s system has only one tier of alerts.

The CRTC has told frustrated callers to set their phones to silent to avoid hearing the loud alarms that accompany the messages, but some say doing so has not addressed the issue, according to the briefing note.

“Client Services have been obtaining information on phone types and models, which has helped narrow where the problem lies, but it is not comprehensive and relies on unvalidated data from the specific complainant,” reads the document, which is dated Oct. 2, 2019.

To remedy the situation, the regulator proposed acquiring 10 smartphones at an estimated cost of $8,000 and testing software for around $7,500.

CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said the regulator is still reviewing the results and will make them public later.

“The primary goal of the testing was to have information to inform Canadians of the behaviours of various mobile devices during alerting events,” Ms. Valladao said in an e-mail.

Story continues below advertisement

According to the briefing document, the CRTC plans to share the results with other government agencies so they can change their public responses accordingly.

While he acknowledges that some people find the late-night alerts disruptive, Prof. Rozdilsky said allowing users to silence the alarms could pose a risk to public safety.

“When the nuclear power plant melts down, I want everyone’s phone to work so they’re getting out of the way,” he said.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies