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Emergency system test fails in Quebec, patchy in Ontario

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The company operating Canada's new national public alert system for mobile devices said it would investigate after a test of the system misfired in Quebec yesterday and was hit-and-miss in Ontario.

Shortly after the test was scheduled to reach mobile devices in Ontario, at 1:55 p.m. (ET), social media was flooded with messages from people confirming they had received the signal, others who had not, and still others who appeared startled or even surprised by it.

“I forgot that we were getting that emergency alert testing on our phones,” wrote one Twitter user, going only by Mary.

“But I got forcibly reminded, all right," she noted. "And there is not enough hot chocolate in the world to calm me down right now.”

Another Twitter user, Brent Morris, wrote that some people at his office got the alert on their phones but he didn't.

“I guess if the world ends, I'm the last to know,” he quipped.

For those who did receive it, the message read, in part, “This is a test of Ontario's Alert Ready System. There is no danger to your health or safety.”

In Quebec, where the test did not go as planned shortly before 10 a.m., the problem did not originate with cellphone service providers but appears to have occurred between emergency management in the province and Pelmorex Corp., which operates the system, said Patricia Valladao, a spokesperson for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

“The alerts are actually coming from the emergency management in the region and then it goes to Pelmorex,” Valladao noted.

In a statement e-mailed to The Canadian Press, Pelmorex blamed the Quebec problem on a computer programming glitch.

“A space incorrectly included in the coding prevented the Alert Ready System from sending the Quebec test message to compatible wireless devices earlier this morning,” it read, adding the misconfiguration quickly was corrected.

The statement also pointed out the Quebec test “did broadcast successfully on TV and radio.”

In Ontario, the test alerts also were expected to be broadcast across TV and radio airwaves, but in some cases no messages were seen on TV screens.

Pelmorex suggested it would take time to figure out what went wrong in Ontario.

“All Alert Ready partners are working together to identify the cause,” it said in a separate statement.

“We thank everyone for their patience as we investigate and work through the test alert results.”

Public Safety minister Ralph Goodale said he expects federal, provincial, and private-sector experts behind the warning system to learn from yesterday's “serious glitches” and correct the problems quickly.

“That consortium of experts has to learn from this experience and make sure that whatever went wrong today in the coding or in the launch, that all of that is corrected and that we have a system up and running as fast as possible,” Goodale said.

“That's what a test is for, to determine if the system works," he reasoned. ”Today, it didn't.

“We need to make sure it's fixed and that it is available to Canadians at the earliest possible moment.”

Depending on settings, users with compatible devices connected to an LTE network were expected to hear a tone similar to an ambulance siren or feel a vibration for eight seconds.

Devices that were turned off would not receive the signal but phone users receiving the alerts would have heard their conversations interrupted by a sound similar to a call-waiting tone.

The tests were being conducted after the CRTC ordered wireless providers to implement the system to distribute warnings of imminent safety threats, such as tornadoes, floods, Amber Alerts, or terrorist threats.

A similar system already is used in the U.S., and made headlines earlier this year when an emergency official in Hawaii mistakenly sent an alert about a potential incoming ballistic missile.

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