Around 11:30 a.m. on Monday, May 14, 2018, Ontario Provincial Police issued an Amber Alert for Gabriel McCallum, an eight-year-old boy from Gorham Township, north of Thunder Bay, Ont. Under Canada’s new Alert Ready system, that allowed the OPP to alert millions of smartphones across the province with a message to look out for McCallum and his mother, the alleged abductor. Minutes later, the alert was sent out again to many in French. Social media immediately lit up with people startled by the message, accompanied by a grating alarm sound.
A little more than an hour later, the OPP reported that McCallum had been found, and the Amber Alert was over. Everyone in the province got another message to that effect, again with the vibration and audible alarm.
This was the first real-world instance of the Alert Ready system in operation, following its initial test run just weeks ago. And already it’s clear that it is seriously flawed.
Is there any way to mute these emergency alerts that Ontario has started? I just had 3 blazing alarms in the span of an hour about an amber alert in Thunder Bay… 14 HOURS away from where I live… wth am I getting these alerts for? What if I was sitting in a lecture?
— Fatimae Baig (@fatimaahb) May 14, 2018
The Ontario emergency alert notification things are going to give me a godamn heart attack. This is the third time today I've had to experience the infernal screeching coming from my phone.
— stephonatron @ anime north cosplay hell (@stephonatron) May 14, 2018
Ok I’m all for safety but these Ontario Emergency Alert Texts have given me. Heart attack 3 times this morning alone
— Mojann (@Mojann) May 14, 2018
Instantly communicating an emergency message within a set geographic area seems fine in theory, but the reality is already clear from just one real-world incident: everyone races to silence their phones, barely reading the text of the alert in the process. People then text family and friends to see if they also got an alert. Then everyone goes back to what they were doing.
The problem isn’t that people are seriously inconvenienced when their phone buzzes for an Amber Alert, because they’re not. The problem is that the system will desensitize them entirely, harming emergency preparedness in general.
Ontario is a jurisdiction of more than 10 million people, and just a few dozen Amber Alerts are made during the course of any given year. For the overwhelming majority of people, the alerts are emotionally distressing but functionally pointless: most of us will never spot a child abduction in progress.
Given that fact, the Amber Alert notices will become, for most people, a minor irritation—one more app notification out of dozens trying to get their attention every hour. Once the alerts become commonplace, they become invisible. The risk is not just that this outcome fails to help law enforcement; it’s that it winds up actively hindering their efforts. People who might, in fact, have had a chance (however slim) to aid the search for a missing child will have unwittingly opted out.
The larger problem is what happens during more widespread civil emergencies—floods, fires, extreme weather and more. In such cases, those who close the alerts out of pure habit will miss out on potentially lifesaving information.
The fatal flaw of Alert Ready is that it has only two settings: cacophonous blaring or nothing. And for most of us, dismissing such alerts on our phones is already such a rote activity as to be barely conscious. Even one Alert Ready event per month will quickly become just more background static in our lives. That’s not going to make anyone safer.