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Numerous safeguards in place to prevent erroneous emergency alerts, software company says

Last Updated Jan 13, 2020 at 3:48 pm EST

An emergency alert issued by the Canadian province of Ontario reporting an unspecified “incident” at a nuclear plant is shown on a smartphone Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. Ontario Power Generation later sent a message saying the alert “was sent in error." The initial message said the incident had occurred at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, though it added there had been no abnormal release of radioactivity from the station. (AP Photo/Robert Gillies)

The company that runs the software the province uses to send out emergency alerts says there are numerous safeguards in place to prevent erroneous alerts from reaching the public.

Martin Belanger is the Director of Public Alerting for Pelmorex, which runs Ontario’s Alert Ready system. He told CityNews on Monday that the software is armed with several safety measures, including a separate testing platform, aimed at preventing panic-inducing mistakes.

The province has blamed human error for an alert issued on Sunday morning that vaguely and ominously warned of an “incident” at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.

About two hours later, a second alert was issued stating there was no active situation taking place, and that the previous alert was “issued in error.”

Belanger explained how difficult it would actually be to commit such a ghastly gaffe.

“There are multiple mechanisms or steps in place to make sure that when a government user that has access to the system goes in … we validate or verify that it’s actually a user that has access to the system. And then there’s different steps to validate that indeed they have an intent of issuing the alert to the public,” he explained.

“And there’s other steps to also confirm at the very end that this is indeed an alert that would be broadcast on TV, radio and on the wireless devices. There’s different mechanisms and measures in place to make sure that a user will validate the alert before it goes out.”

Exactly how the error took place hasn’t been disclosed, but Belanger says there’s a separate platform for testing.

“There’s two separate software platforms,” he stressed. “There’s the training component of the system, which the alerts don’t go out because that’s the whole point of training and testing things. And there’s the live system for real life emergency situations.

“So those alerts on the training platform don’t go out. As far as the live system is concerned, there are steps in place to make sure that the user, when they log in, they confirm their intent of sending an alert.”

How the alert system works

Belanger explained how government agencies have ultimate control over the alert system.

“It first starts with the authorized government agencies that may need to send an alert out to the public. So when there’s a situation that warrants an alert to go out, they will actually access the technology or software that we provide to them and they will go and create an alert.”

Despite numerous complaints from the public about receiving alerts that aren’t relevant to them geographically, Belanger says it’s up to the government to determine who receives the alerts.

“From a system perspective the technology allows the authorized government agencies to determine the area. It can be province-wide, it can be as small as one or two city blocks. From a system perspective they can determine the target area and that’s their choosing. It’s their responsibility to select the area that the alert will be sent out.”

In instances like Sunday’s alert, which was apparently the result of human error, Belanger says there are timely measures that can minimize the impact.

“(There are) different tools to address (errors),” he maintained. “They can either update or amend the alert, if maybe the content has changed or the situation has evolved, or they can also cancel the alert and end the event if the threat is over or maybe the alert was sent in error.”

NDP Energy Critic Peter Tabuns is among those seeking answers as to why it took the government nearly two hours to send out a second alert.

Tabuns is calling for an independent probe into the matter, saying the public’s confidence in the alert system has been compromised.

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