It’s one of those stories that makes you wonder, “What year is it again?”
The Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission revealed Friday a deadline for mandatory participation in a National Public Alerting System.
The ability to broadcast emergency alerts issued by local officials for major radio and television broadcasters, cable and satellite operators and video-on-demand services must occur by March 31, 2015. Campus, community and Native stations have until March 31, 2016, to implement this system. By that time, notwithstanding further delays, Canada will have a national warning system capable of reaching the vast majority of its population.
What a slow, lumbering process this has been.
It’s been more than four years since the CRTC granted the company that owns The Weather Network, Pelmorex, a licence to operate the underlying alert system accessible to local officials during an emergency.
Despite professing a willingness to participate, there’s been resistance from some broadcasters.
During CRTC hearings, there was disagreement over who should be obligated to distribute the messages. Certain broadcasters wanted to be exempt from the requirement altogether.
It was argued only text warnings should be mandatory, making audio optional — something the CRTC agreed to, unbelievably. The commission encouraged broadcasters, emergency officials and Pelmorex, however, to come up with an adequate solution to generate speech from text when audio isn’t provided.
It may shock you to learn a national broadcast warning system doesn’t already exist in Canada, especially when the United States has had more than 60 years to refine the art of sending warnings. Some form of alert on radio and television for national emergencies has existed in the U.S. since 1963. Before that, a rudimentary system on radio for providing information in the event of an enemy attack had been around since 1951.
(I am certain adults among us who grew up with easy access to U.S. television stations have vivid memories of our after-school specials or Saturday morning cartoons interrupted by tests of what was then known as the Emergency Broadcast System.)
As much of Canada languished in the dark ages when it came to distributing essential information in the event of an emergency, Alberta stood apart.
Since 1992, it has demonstrated the effectiveness of a widespread emergency alert system through radio and television.
The system is a direct response to a deadly tornado that tore through Edmonton on July 31, 1987, which killed 27 people, injured hundreds more and caused more than $300 million in damage.
Time and again, Alberta Emergency Alert and its predecessor have provided essential, potentially life-saving information. During two recent emergencies, the 2013 flooding in southern Alberta and the 2011 wildfire in Slave Lake, Albertans learned what an asset broadcast emergency alerts can be.
The system is also used to send out Amber Alerts, to great effect.
It isn’t without faults: When Alberta Emergency Alert upgraded its system to allow for warnings that used computers to generate speech from text, the resulting audio was often unintelligible.
That’s since been fixed, mostly. There are still times when a word or part of a place name gets mangled but not to the point of being unable to tell what the emergency is.
At least Albertans have something to warn them of an imminent emergency, because Canadians on the whole have had nothing of the sort at all.
That it took this long to implement a national alert system is simply unbelievable.
On Twitter: @SUNRickyLeong