06/28/2013 10:16 EDT | Updated 08/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Smartphone disaster alert system in works but experts say likely years away

TORONTO - Smartphone users in parts of the U.S. are now receiving warnings about imminent disasters via text messages that arrive with a startling ringtone.

A similar system is being discussed for Canada but experts say it's likely years away.

While the alerts appear on a phone like a regular SMS text message, it's actually a different kind of broadcast pushed out to devices connected to a cell tower. Messages about emergencies and Amber Alerts are sent out to the towers only when a warning is necessary.

When the U.S. Congress signed an act to launch the technology seven years ago, the original iPhone was still a year away. Now more than ever, there's an obvious appeal to having disaster warnings pushed to the devices many Canadians carry around.

"Alerts over TV are pretty ineffective when it comes to the younger generation but they've got a handheld wireless device in their hands pretty much everywhere they go," said Doug Allport, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Association for Public Alerting and Notification.

"If you're within the vicinity of a tower that has an alert issued on it your wireless device is going to go off, it's not something you can ignore."

As a member of the association's working group, Jacob Westfall knows the alert system well. And living in a border city, he's actually received some of the alerts on his own phone.

"I live in Sarnia, Ont., and I have a phone that works in Port Huron, Mich., and it goes off when there's a tornado warning on the other side of the border," said Westfall, president of NetAlerts, a public alerting software development company.

"It's pretty hard to miss and in fact when it goes off in the States there's always lots of complaints like, 'What the heck is going wrong with my phone? It's buzzing, its going crazy!'"

In January, some Florida residents got their first exposure to the alerting system when an Amber Alert was declared in the search for a missing two-year-old child. The startling alert went off just after 1:30 a.m. and awoke many in a panic.

"It sounded like a Nazi air-raid siren," Lisa Agro told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "It freaked me out. I knew it wasn't a ringtone."

Users can opt out of receiving Amber Alerts but critical disaster alerts cannot be disabled.

Wireless companies will have to update their infrastructure for the system to be implemented in Canada and Westfall said firms have indicated they support the effort. Still, because the companies bear the cost of updating the system, it will take time, he added.

"Obviously it's a large capital outlay. In the United States they did not provide funding to the wireless companies in order to do this, this was something that was set aside as voluntary," said Westfall.

He predicted it's "probably in the three- to four-year range" before the entire country is connected to such a system without any provincial or federal funding. But he does predict some testing may be done in larger urban centres that are already equipped to distribute the alerts in the months ahead.

"I expect we're likely to see some trials by the end of this year," Westfall said.

"They'll be dipping their toes in the water in terms of how are we going to roll this out on a larger scale."

While email and social media are seen as part of the future of public alerting, they do have some issues, said Allport.

"The viral potential has an advantage and a disadvantage. The problem is there's an echo in social media and so these things get retweeted and retweeted and retweeted long after the fact," he said.

But getting a message out over social media is important, added Westfall.

"A lot of studies have found when people get that first message they don't usually take action, they kind of go into a mode where they start searching for other information and looking for confirmation," he said.

"That's why it's very important that when you issue your alert it can go out via wireless alerts but it can also go out to all those other channels so there's an immediate confirmation for those that use social media that yes, it's legit, and you need to take action."

Allport called the conventional alert system in Alberta "the world's best" and said it did its job during the recent flooding. Still, he said the wireless system would've helped.

"I don't know of a system that's any better than what they've put together. But all technologies are needed," he said.

"There isn't a single magic channel that works, there's no one channel that works for all of us. Until we get a chip in our neck that's connected to an emergency network, we've got to send emergency alerts down all channels. The next progress is definitely to add wireless."

Public Safety Canada declined an interview request to talk about the Wireless Public Alerting Dissemination system.