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Should you be allowed to opt out of receiving Amber Alerts?

Just after 3 a.m. Thursday morning, cellphones across the province sounded off in unison for an Amber Alert notifying the public about two missing young children believed to be in the company of their grandfather.

All three were later found safe during a traffic stop in Etobicoke. All in all, it was a happy ending.

But with the alert came the now-expected onslaught of complaints, with dozens of people even calling 911, according to York regional police.

And while Const. Andy Pattenden called it “sad” that people picked up the phone to call 911, the complaints do the beg the question: Can the Amber Alert system in Ontario be improved?

Since the beginning of the year, five Amber Alerts have been issued in Ontario.

In each case, police say the alerts were carefully thought out and integral in locating the children, with all but one found safe.

But each time one was issued angry residents called 911, complaining that the jarring alerts rattled them out of bed.

One policy expert suggests changing the way Amber Alerts are currently sent out.

Sunil Johal, with the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre think tank, says we can learn a few things from our southern neighbours.

Johal suggests adopting a tiered alert system, like the one used in the United States.

“I think the challenge is we’ve got an all-or-nothing system right now,” he said. “The alerts come at all times of day at the same volume and frequency. If someone is sleeping it’s probably unlikely they are going to be able to do anything about this, whereas there might be other kinds of alarms, like a tornado warning or something, where you want people to be woken up in the middle of the night.”

“The simplest fix to the system would really be introducing a second tier of alerts that people could have on silent or opt out of … So I think tier 1 messages would be ‘we’ve got an imminent natural disaster and you need to evacuate your neighbourhood or go into your basement for shelter’ and everyone would receive those at all times.

“That’s what they do in the United States where they’ve got different levels of alerts and people can opt out of receiving the less serious ones or put the less serious message on a quieter setting so it doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night.”

Johal still believes the Ontario system is effective, but says the province can iron out the wrinkles to make it ever more effective while cutting back on complaints.

“I think there’s some tweaks we can make to improve the system,” he said. “But I think overall the intention of the system is terrific and I think we just need to think about how we can make it better.”

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