Amber Alerts And Cellular Distribution – A Necessity?

Recently here in my community (and elsewhere in the country), amber alerts once again were in the news. Not so much the concept, which has been around forever. More, the new distribution methods enabled by revolutions in consumer technology.

While this conversation has come up before in the not too distant past, the most recent example out of Peel, Ontario blew the conversation into the mainstream. A debate with one side that can almost entirely be showcased by this meme

While I agree with the final sentence, the other part is idiotic. But really, nothing I have not come to expect from the easily triggered and emotionally reactionary public.

Consider the Humboldt Broncos bus accident. The emotional reactionaries in at least MY area of observation almost unanimously turned towards racist and otherwise bigoted explanations. Wherein reporters from the CBC (at times working alongside victims of Humboldt, and similar accidents) kept the emotion at bay and looked for deeper causes. And this paid off when they found 2.

1.) Truck driver training is (or was, depending on when you read this) severely lacking in all provinces but Ontario.

2.) The lack of seat belts on both school and coach buses is now being looked at as a very real potential safety concern.

Neither of which we would be talking about had we just followed through the way we usually do. A mindset that essentially entails exploiting someone else’s tragedy as an excuse to be bigoted. Then, onto the next thing that gets our panties ties up into a knot. In this paradigm, almost certainly involving something Justin Trudeau did or didn’t do.

I could comment on the size difference of the crowdfunding purses of the Humboldt families versus the Toronto van attack victims. But that would be. . . petty?

To put it mildly, I am not a sentimental person. Nor am I afraid to point out the at times glaring ridiculousness of those acting on such feelings. If only missing and murdered indigenous women had such an effect on people, we MAY just get somewhere with that process!

As opposed to, when a bus filled with white hockey players has an accident. Or when people think a white child has gone missing.

While taking such an overtly hostile approach is not the best tactic to use when attempting to forward an argument (or provoke thought in an opposing mindset), I had to get it off my chest. My side has spent that week reading and getting virtue signaled to death and made to look like psychopaths by emotionally crazed jackasses, everywhere from social media to the local paper. Being that this is my little oasis of thought in the mess of white noise that is the internet, I feel no shame in expressing EXACTLY how I feel. It’s nice to be unencumbered by the delicate nature (and the very likely censoring hand!) of the average emotionally driven zealot.

With that out of the way, we can move onto the real issue at hand.

It all started (at least here in Canada) with the introduction of the Alert Ready system. In the event of an emergency (be it at the local, regional or national level), an alert can be issued through all radio, cable/over the air television and cellular distributors (via LTE) in the affected area. The distribution VIA radio and television systems have pretty much been perfected, but the cellular carriage is still ironing out some issues. Evidenced by numerous issues with test runs, and by the fact that devices in Manitoba should never have gotten the latest alert out of Peel, Ontario to begin with. Definitely an issue that carriers and Alert Ready have to work out before the summer storm season.

But my problem isn’t with the system itself. Personally, I like it. The fact that you can be on the road (radio and cell) or sitting at home watching HBO and still be alerted to a developing situation (like a tornado) is a good thing. Though aspects of the system obviously need tweaking, the system will be eventually fixed. Instead, my issue lies in exactly how this important tool should be used. Does the average amber alert REALLY garner that amount of urgency?

I get that the reaction to that may be seemingly obvious to a fairly large cohort. If they made it this far, they will likely be locked and loaded with the only seemingly human answer.

Of course it would be justifiably urgent enough if it were YOUR kid!”

Even though I don’t ever plan on having any, I am not completely oblivious. I have family and friends.

Check and mate, dumbass! Go back to your Facebook profile and post another annoying minion’s based meme.I take your point and raise “so?”.

Please let the adults speak now. Your contributing nothing.

There are a couple of aspects to this conversation that need to be covered. The first is whether or not it is advisable to use the emergency alert system for seemingly personal matters (let’s be honest here). And the other is a matter of timing. Given that we’re now trained to associate such alerts with some unknown but unfolding disaster (particularly when waking from sleep), is this REALLY a way that we should be using this system? When does justified usage become frivolous?

Personally, I wish that this network would NOT be fully utilized to distribute amber alerts. And yes, even if my family member vanished into the still of the night, I still stand by my statement. Here is why.

First, television distribution.

Amber alerts generally cover when someone is on the move (for example, a kidnapping). This we’re informing people sitting in front of a television set to be on the lookout for *insert here*. Since these things always override currently watched programming either OTA or cable, the usage potential is highly questionable.

Cellular distribution is a somewhat more complicated matter, however.

When it comes to amber alerts, this would indeed seem to be the most logical choice. People carry their phones everywhere, and more people are listening to media other than terrestrial radio in vehicles now than ever before (from satellite radio to personalized playlists), so this seems to be a good device to target. Some cars now even have built-in LTE wifi compatibility (though I don’t know if these systems can receive and/or display emergency alerts).

I am a bit hesitant on this distribution method however, due to the currently necessary messiness in the current distribution model. Emergency alerts VIA LTE are currently distributed within entire cells of a cellular network and are grabbed by any compatible device in the region (much like how your car radio grabs local stations). It’s a relatively good system for many emergencies such as fires, weather disturbances or manmade phenomenon (such as chemical emergencies), but I’m not sure that such messy distribution is advisable for Amber alerts. Particularly when these alerts may be issued during the late evening to late night hours.

It’s not just the waking up the public aspect. The bigger problem is the very real possibility of building up peoples tolerance to such messages, or even making some take evasive action to avoid them altogether. For example, if your phone screeches out an amber alert (warranted or not!) 6 or 7 times in a year, dismissal of these alerts may become reflexive. Which would have horrific potential if, say, a dangerous storm system or a human disaster generated a late night emergency alert of which a collective mass simply silenced and went back to sleep. Since there seems to be no way to block inbound amber alerts in Canada, some could also feel forced to take even more drastic action. One option is shutting the device down when your sleeping. Another would be to shut off the LTE connection and just run on the unaffected 3G and 4G systems. Well, at least for the time being (with many new devices embracing voice over LTE, the previous generations won’t be kept forever. Granted, there are enough devices that default back to 3/4G for calls that I suspect these previous generations may be around for at least a decade,if not longer). Hopefully, we will have improved the distribution system by then.

Which brings me to the positive, more constructive side of this piece. Though I am not a big fan of the current model of amber alert distribution to mobile devices, I’m not saying that it can’t be made better.

Generally, these are issued when suspects are on the run, as in the recent case out of Peel, Ontario. Given that police are reasonably sure that they fled town VIA a roadway, then the distribution of an alert to all devices within a given proximity to all major highways in that area is a perfectly sound solution. Any vehicles entering the corridor are alerted. Anyone exiting (or outside) the corridor aren’t alerted. Given that you can make reasonable judgments on the speed and distance of a traveling vehicle, the alert corridor can be actively expanded as such. Until the situation is resolved.

Such a system still leaves a little bit of messiness (living or working near a major route). But it’s a whole lot cleaner than spraying an entire city with terrifying alerts when maybe 2 or 3% of the population is actually in a position to make use of the information.

Amber alerts are an important tool in the law enforcement toolkit for the resolution of many different situations which otherwise present a significant challenge. As technology progresses, this tool becomes even more useful as it’s distribution becomes ever more embedded. However, like all things, use of this tool ought be given very careful consideration. Indeed, as the simple minds argue, you would want every tool utilized if it was YOUR child. However, if a handful of hopefully happy endings eventually culminate in a mass of fatalities due to alert fatigue, was it REALLY worth it?

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