Am­ber Alert sparks anger ... yet again

Sud­bury case sparks con­tro­versy


Anger at cell­phone Am­ber Alerts — in­clud­ing one is­sued by Greater Sud­bury Po­lice on Tues­day — that rouse peo­ple from their sleep is mis­placed and shows the need for more pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, ob­servers said on Tues­day.

Peo­ple need to un­der­stand that the emer­gency alerts are only is­sued when po­lice need help in find­ing a child they be­lieve is in grave peril — usu­ally the re­sult of an ab­duc­tion, they said.

Ken McBey, a pro­fes­sor at York Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in so­cial and be­havioural el­e­ments in emer­gen­cies, said those who light up 911 to com­plain about the alerts are be­ing “in­cred­i­bly self­ish.”

“It’s just one of those trade-offs: It’s a mat­ter of bal­anc­ing off in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests for what’s best for so­ci­ety,” McBey said. “Part of this is ac­tu­ally shap­ing per­cep­tions. To a cer­tain de­gree, emer­gency au­thor­i­ties have a sales job to do. They haven’t done it as well as they could have.”

The lat­est sit­u­a­tion arose in the early hours on Tues­day, when po­lice in Sud­bury is­sued an Am­ber Alert, send­ing a ca­cophonous, pierc­ing tone to cell­phones along with de­tails of a miss­ing three­year-old boy and the cir­cum­stances of his al­leged ab­duc­tion.

As in the past, some re­cip­i­ents ob­ject­ing to be­ing dis­turbed called emer­gency ser­vices to vent their anger. That in turn prompted a plea from po­lice in Toronto, where the miss­ing child was found safe, as well as the city’s mayor to warn against mak­ing such calls to 911 as they could de­lay re­sponse to a real threat.

“Be­ing wo­ken up by an Am­ber Alert is not an emer­gency,” Toronto Mayor John Tory pointed out in a tweet.

The boy was found safe in Toronto.

The tod­dler, who was last seen Mon­day on a bus from Sud­bury to Toronto, was found at a Bruy­eres Muse condo in the Fort York Boule­vard and Lake Shore area of Toronto about three hours af­ter the alert was is­sued, Toronto Po­lice said.

Greater Sud­bury Po­lice said the boy was found af­ter a call was re­ceived to their tip line.

Po­lice in Sud bury had al­leged he was ab­ducted by his 25-year-old mother.

Of­fi­cers iden­ti­fied the boy as Wil­liam Gooden and the mother as Bre­ana Gooden.

Toronto Po­lice said both the boy and the woman were “safe” and Sud­bury of­fi­cers de­scribed them as “in good health.”

There was no im­me­di­ate word on if charges would be laid.

Greater Sud­bury Po­lice said the boy had been dropped off by his guardian at a mall with his mom around noon on Mon­day. The guardian con­tacted po­lice around mid­night when the tot had not been re­turned.

An On­tario North­land em­ployee told po­lice at 3 a.m. that the pair had boarded a bus des­tined to ar­rive in Toronto at 6:50 p.m. Mon­day. The Am­ber Alert was is­sued at around 5 a.m.

Am­ber Alerts used to be broad­cast via main­stream me­dia, miss­ing peo­ple who weren’t watch­ing tele­vi­sion or lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio. So­cial me­dia helped, but for about a year now, the tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed alerts to be sent to al­most all cell­phones within a cer­tain geo­graphic area.

Karen Chymy, with the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Child Pro­tec­tion in Win­nipeg, said she’s heard com­plaints from peo­ple up­set at the dis­rup­tion. At the same time, she said, far more peo­ple un­der­stand the im­por­tance and are com­fort­able with the in­tru­sion.

“It’s new, so peo­ple are learn­ing about that sys­tem and how it’s be­ing used,” Chymy said. “If it were our own child, we’d want the pub­lic to be aware.”

Those who seek to help chil­dren say Cana­di­ans are for­tu­nate the tech­nol­ogy al­lows alerts to reach so many peo­ple so quickly — even those who can’t help at that mo­ment. While they say they un­der­stand the an­noy­ance some might feel at be­ing roused from sleep, they note an alert might still be ac­tive when those peo­ple are up and out.

“This alert is work­ing. It’s find­ing chil­dren, it’s keep­ing them safe,” Amanda Pick, CEO of Miss­ing Chil­dren So­ci­ety of Canada, said from Cal­gary. “That should be our an­swer every day: We will stand to­gether to re­ceive that in­for­ma­tion and pro­tect chil­dren.”

While in­di­vid­ual emer­gency ser­vices make the call on is­su­ing cell­phone alerts, avoid­ing them is generally not pos­si­ble. Greg Burch with the Cana­dian Wire­less Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion said the ap­proach is de­lib­er­ate and man­dated by the fed­eral reg­u­la­tor, the Cana­dian Ra­dio-tele­vi­sion and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

“Given the im­por­tance of warn­ing Cana­di­ans of im­mi­nent threats to the safety of life and property, the CRTC re­quires wire­less ser­vice providers to dis­trib­ute alerts on all com­pat­i­ble wire­less de­vices con­nected to an LTE net­work in the tar­get area,” Burch said. “There­fore, it is not pos­si­ble to opt out of re­ceiv­ing the alerts.”

A spokes­woman said the CRTC is not re­spon­si­ble for the dis­tri­bu­tion or con­tent of alerts. How­ever, Pa­tri­cia Val­ladao said the com­mis­sion con­tin­ues to dis­cuss con­cerns heard from the pub­lic and others to en­cour­age adop­tion of mea­sures to im­prove the sys­tem.

McBey, of York Univer­sity, said tech­nol­ogy is con­tin­u­ing to evolve and a more re­fined sys­tem of alerts will likely de­velop. In the in­terim, he said, peo­ple should re­mem­ber that much of what crosses their smart­phones every day is triv­ial com­pared with an alert.

“An Am­ber Alert is a pretty im­por­tant thing for so­ci­ety. You’ve got lives that are in dan­ger,” he said. “It isn’t to wake you up and to ir­ri­tate you.”

Wil­liam Gooden

Bre­ana Gooden

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