Like so many other people in Ontario who sleep near their phones, Mark Guinto woke up at exactly 7:23 a.m. on Sunday, startled by an emergency alert about an “incident” at the Pickering Nuclear Station.
Guinto, manager of public affairs for the City of Pickering, was confused: He’d conducted numerous drills and simulations of what would happen in the event of a real nuclear emergency. This was not the way he was supposed to find out — through a push notification that offered almost no details about what was happening.
“I had no idea what was going on, so I contacted my counterpart (at the nuclear station),” Guinto said in an interview on Sunday afternoon. “They weren’t aware of anything, so they were very puzzled, we were trying to figure out what was going on.”
Across town, Pickering’s fire chief John Hagg was also vexed.
“My first reaction was kind of shock to be honest with you,” said Hagg. “I thought I got to get to the bottom of this.”
Immediately, he was suspicious though: Pickering, a small city east of Toronto, has had a nuclear power plant since the 1960s and there’s never been an incident. But it has sirens it can sound, and a detailed crisis response plan in case of a real event. Hagg figured he would at least have gotten a call if something had happened at the nuclear plant.
We want people to listen … when there’s a real emergency going on, so yeah it could affect long term trust in these messages
While the alert said there had been “NO abnormal release of radioactivity” and people near the plant did not need to take any protective action, it also said emergency staff were responding to “the situation” and urged people to stay tuned for further information and instruction.
The result was a province wide scramble to respond, in what marked the first nuclear-related emergency alert issued in Canada under its current notification system — a false alarm as it turned out that was distributed throughout Ontario.
Within 10 minutes of receiving the alert, and after a flurry of calls within Ontario’s emergency management sphere, Hagg and Guinto both said they felt confident they were dealing with a false alarm.
Still, it took nearly two more hours, until 9:23 a.m. before a second push notification corrected the first emergency alert.
“There is NO active nuclear situation taking place at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station,” it said. “The previous alert was issued in error.”
By Sunday afternoon, Ontario’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones had apologized and said the problem had been traced to a command room in Toronto, where the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre is based.
My first reaction was kind of shock to be honest with you,
She told the Financial Post that the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre tests the emergency notification system on a daily basis. Somehow, on Sunday morning, a test message was mistakenly distributed to the general public.
Jones said she has assigned Doug Brown, chief of emergency management, to conduct an investigation of the incident.
“It’s his operation, so I think it’s important that people who understand the process, can review (it),” Jones said.
While no deadline has been set for the investigation, she said she expects to have results quickly and said it would be an important part of restoring faith in the emergency notification system.
In Canada, the national public alerting system is known as “Alert Ready.” It relies on software and technology developed by Oakville-based Pelmorex Corp., which allows government officials to issue alerts about life-threatening events such as child abductions, tornadoes or floods.
“This would be the first time there has been a nuclear emergency alert” under the Alert Ready system, said Martin Belanger, director of public alerting at Pelmorex.
In 2019, there were 131 emergency alert messages sent throughout all of Canada — roughly in line with the average over the last decade, he said.
The previous alert was issued in error
Belanger noted that in April 2018, it became mandatory for all wireless devices connected to a 4G network to also issue alerts, in addition to radio and TV stations. That may brought the alerts to the attention of more people, he said.
Recently the alerts have been generating controversy, with some people complaining that the notifications are disruptive and yet they cannot be turned off on smartphones.
In October, Hamilton police charged a man with mischief for allegedly calling 911 to complain about an Amber Alert about five missing children.
Jones, the solicitor general, said it is vital to have a credible emergency alert system and pledged to ensure that Ontario’s system works.
Hagg, the fire chief in Pickering, said he is concerned that Sunday’s false alarm could cause collateral damage. It already distracted emergency dispatchers from dealing with actual emergencies, he said.
“There’s definitely some concern about it,” said Hagg. “We want people to listen … when there’s a real emergency going on, so yeah it could affect long term trust in these messages.”