Cana­di­ans’ lives may de­pend on it

Min­is­ter of Cana­dian Her­itage must put full weight of her of­fice be­hind the ini­tia­tive

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY SEN. COLIN KENNY Colin Kenny is for­mer chair of the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on Na­tional Se­cu­rity and De­fence

Emer­gen­cies come in all shapes and sizes. In the Mar­itimes, hur­ri­canes are 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 cell phones, par­tic­u­larly with un­pre­dictable weather pat­terns and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters on the rise. Emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials al­ways point to early warn­ing sys­tems (EWS) 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 on 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.

Ear­lier this year 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.

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. In 2007, the com­mit­tee ad­duced ev­i­dence 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, “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 Cana­dian Her­itage put the full weight of her of­fice be­hind the ini­tia­tive too. Cana­di­ans lives may well de­pend on it.

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