Home Page News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Advertising Subscribe Reuse & Permissions
Hill Times Events Hill Times Books Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Opinion

Feds must move fast to set up emergency alert system for cellphones

By Senator Colin Kenny      

If our experience with broadcast alerts is any indication, adding cellphones could take a while. The Innovation minister should press the CRTC for speed. Canadian lives could depend on it.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains ought to push the CRTC to move quickly on requiring cellphone providers to alert Canadians of emergencies, argues Senate Liberal Colin Kenny.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PARLIAMENT HILL—Emergencies come in all shapes and sizes. In Ontario, unpredictable weather is a fact of life that can have devastating effects on people and property. Then there are the man-made ones such as gas leaks, chemical spills, terror attacks, and child abductions.

You’re either prepared for emergencies or you’re not. Simply put, we are not. At least, not as well as we could be.

Canadians currently receive emergency warnings through every major medium except cellphones. That might seem like a small piece of the puzzle but cellphone alerts have become increasingly necessary to emergency preparedness in an age when so many people are cutting the cords of traditional media.

Today, 85 per cent of Canadian households have mobile phones while just under a third have cable subscriptions. Even without those figures, all you have to do is spend some time on a bus or in a coffee shop and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not glued to their phone, tablet, or laptop.

This points to the necessity of expanding public alerts to include cellphones, particularly with unpredictable weather patterns and natural disasters on the rise. Emergency management officials always point to early warning systems as the best way to prevent loss of life. It’s not difficult to imagine how an alert on your cellphone in a time of emergency could save you, your family and friends, or even total strangers.

It’s worth noting that Canada’s not alone on this. At a May 24 meeting in Mexico, the United Nations Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction focused on the need to shift from managing disasters to managing the risks of disaster. That included not only making early warning systems more effective and efficient but also coordinating government and telecom efforts to ensure alerts are universal.

In April, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced that they were giving telecom companies “approximately 12 months” to implement cellphone emergency alerting system.

After seeing the announcement, my initial thoughts were: “it’s about time,” and “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

You see, we’ve been down this road before with the CRTC.

There’s no current nationwide mandatory system to alert Canadians by cellphone when they may be imminently affected by an emergency, such as the flooding that hit parts of Gatineau, Que. in May. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

In 2004, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence issued what was to be the first of many recommendations to establish a national public alerting system. A few years later, the committee took from CRTC spokesman Scott Hutton that a system featuring interruptive television alerts would be in place by 2009. He repeatedly undertook that if an alert system were not in place on a voluntary basis by 2009, the CRTC would take the necessary steps to put one in place.

But that deadline passed and Canadians had to wait another six years before the CRTC compelled broadcasters to create a national alert system. Even then, some broadcasters dragged their feet on meeting the deadline, and Bell Canada and others were still not fully compliant for several months.

Hence my skepticism about the CRTC’s latest pronouncement. Littered with the seeds of delay and obfuscation, it began with a supposedly firm deadline of next April 6, but then goes on to say that a number of kinks would need to be worked out before emergency alerts can begin. Then it ends by stating that “the Commission expects that this new capability will be available in approximately 12 months.”

Talk about a soft deadline.

The thing is, this isn’t exactly new technology. Smartphones have been in widespread use for more than a decade and the Americans have had a cellphone alert system in place since 2013. In fact, with their matrix of alerting technology (cellphones, sirens, TV, radio) it is almost impossible for Americans not to be warned.

I commend the CRTC for finally calling on telecom providers to get on board with cellphone alerts but I’d sleep a little better if the minister of Innovation put the full weight of his office behind the initiative too. Canadians lives may well depend on it.

Ontario Liberal Senator Colin Kenny is the former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He can be reached at Kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca.

Editor’s note: This column incorrectly identified Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly as the minister responsible for telecomm issues, but it is Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. The column has been updated and corrected. The Hill Times regrets this error. 

The Hill Times

More in News

What happens if an MP’s found guilty of sexual harassment? No one’s saying

News|By Abbas Rana
All the federal political parties say they take sexual harassment “seriously,” but none will say what disciplinary action they would take against an MP found guilty of it. “We take sexual harassment allegations very seriously,…

Feds’ sweeping, new environmental assessment bill keeps power in ministers’ hands, say observers

The government’s new Impact Assessment Act includes hundreds of pages detailing changes to the environmental assessment process in Canada, but keeps ultimate power over approving natural resource projects in the hands of the federal environment…

NDP reviewing past, present harassment processes amid Stoffer, Weir allegations

The NDP isn’t currently investigating the specific harassment allegations against former NDP MP Peter Stoffer, but it says it's looking into how such complaints were, are now and will be handled, something strategist Robin Sears…

Patrick Brown gaining support since re-emerging to challenge sexual harassment allegations, says adviser, though Conservative MPs largely quiet

Patrick Brown, who in a dramatic move re-entered the Ontario leadership late Friday afternoon, is receiving strong support from all corners of the political world since publicly re-emerging to challenge the sexual harassment allegations that…

Some Liberal MPs frustrated with leadership for not sharing anti-abortion political strategy on Canada Summer Jobs program

Some Liberal MPs say they're frustrated the party leadership did not share the political strategy with the caucus on why the government was so adamant on keeping the new controversial reproductive rights clause in the…

NDP elects former Hill staffer Vick as new party president

NDP members elected a new party president on the last day of the party’s 2018 policy convention, with former Hill staffer Mathieu Vick being elevated to the role after garnering roughly 83 per cent of…

NDP delegates protest ‘watered down’ Palestine policy

In the waning hours of the NDP policy convention’s second day dozens of delegates stood in silence with hands raised holding posters proclaiming “Free Palestine” as they protested what some called a “watered down” resolution…

Galvanizing members, regaining momentum key for NDP at convention to be in fighting shape for 2019: strategists

With more than 1,800 New Democrats gathered in Ottawa to debate and help shape future party policies, NDP strategist and former national director Karl Bélanger says a top priority this weekend is to “galvanize” members…

NDP ‘shaken’ by harassment allegations, promises to root out problems in own ranks

The NDP's approach to anti-harassment was the first policy to earn mention at its convention in Ottawa on Friday—despite not being slated on the floor—with outgoing president Marit Stiles apologizing to party members who had…

WANT MORE EXCLUSIVE HILL TIMES CONTENT?

We’re offering 15% off a year-long subscription to the hill times online content.