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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.”

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.

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.

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.

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