December 18, 2018

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Latest Amber Alert raises questions about use of cellphone notifications

An Amber Alert issued at 12:30 a.m. on Monday startled Manitobans from their sleep and left many perplexed about why some received the notification on their cell phones and others didn't.

Manitoba RCMP asked that the province issue the alert upon receiving a request for help from their counterparts in Saskatchewan, who were searching for a six-year-old girl. The child had been left alone in the back of an SUV in North Battleford, Sask., when the vehicle was stolen. The girl was later found safe inside the abandoned vehicle.

In her St. Vital home, senior Sylvia Zubert awoke to "an ungodly noise" from the iPhone on her night table when the alert sounded.

"It really shocked me," she said.

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An Amber Alert issued at 12:30 a.m. on Monday startled Manitobans from their sleep and left many perplexed about why some received the notification on their cell phones and others didn't.

Manitoba RCMP asked that the province issue the alert upon receiving a request for help from their counterparts in Saskatchewan, who were searching for a six-year-old girl. The child had been left alone in the back of an SUV in North Battleford, Sask., when the vehicle was stolen. The girl was later found safe inside the abandoned vehicle.

In her St. Vital home, senior Sylvia Zubert awoke to "an ungodly noise" from the iPhone on her night table when the alert sounded.

"It really shocked me," she said.

Amber Alert for Emma O'Keeffe.
September 17 at 12:28 am.

Amber Alert for Emma O'Keeffe. September 17 at 12:28 am.

Zubert had set her phone for the night so that she could only be reached by close family. She later questioned why an alert would be issued at such an hour unless citizens were in imminent danger.

"If there is a tornado touching down in St. Vital or, God forbid, we're under terrorist attack, sure screech in my ear and bounce me out of bed," she said. "But what am I supposed to do about a poor little girl who's been abducted... in North Battleford, Sask.? How is waking up this senior citizen in the middle of the night going to help that poor little girl?"

For others, the discussion Monday was why some folks received the alert and others didn't. The answer to that depends on the vintage of a user's wireless device, whether software upgrades have been made and whether or not it was tuned to an LTE (long-term evolution) network.

"If your phone was on and was connected to LTE, you would have gotten the (Amber Alert) message," said Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, who is responsible for the province's Emergency Measures Organization.

Currently, cell phones on 3G or 4G will not pick up the emergency alert. That will change when new cell phones come onto the market next spring that will allow users to receive a government-issued Amber Alert on either 3G or LTE, Schuler said.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The minister said it is his understanding that at least 60 per cent of Manitobans on an LTE network received the message early Monday. The remainder wouldn't have got it it because they had either turned off their phone, placed it on airplane mode or had problems with the device, such as a dead battery, he said.

"All of those who were on a 3G or 4G network would not have gotten it," the minister said. He noted, however, that broadcast outlets and media websites, such as the Free Press site got the message out.

Schuler said emergency alerts will reach closer to 100 per cent of the population as cell phone users upgrade their devices. "There are some people who still have some pretty old phones. And people will have to upgrade if they want to receive these messages," he said.

The following devices with software kept up to date will be compatible:

Click to Expand

Apple: iPhone 5s, 6, 6s, 6 Plus, SE, 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, X

Samsung: Note 8, GS8, GS8+, J3 Prime, GS7, GS7 Edge, GS9, GS9+, A8

Alcatel: A50, GO Flip

Blackberry: Motion

LG: V30, Q6

Sony: Xperia XZ1

- Source: Bell MTS website

While Emergency Measures can isolate an alert to specific regions of the province, Schuler said, it was decided to blanket the province in this case.

"If a tornado is coming, we can let a certain region know so we don't have to alarm everybody in the province of Manitoba," he said. "I believe in these cases, where it is an Amber Alert, that we do notify the entire province. We don't know where this individual was going with the (stolen) vehicle. It was just safer and better to notify anybody and everybody... And it worked."

As of this past April, wireless service providers have been able to distribute emergency alerts to compatible devices on behalf of federal and provincial authorities.

Asked Monday why police did not use the technology during a manhunt recently after a Mountie was shot and wounded near Onanole, a Manitoba RCMP spokesman said it was deemed that communicating information about the incident through social media and traditional media "was sufficient to reach the affected public."

He called the Alert Ready system a new and "a very important tool," whose use would be considered on a case by case basis.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

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