This past week, Ontario issued an Amber Alert for a missing kid in Toronto. For those living elsewhere, under a rock, or with old phones, Amber Alerts in Ontario activate the emergency alerts on everyone’s cell phone (well, at least everyone’s phone that is turned on, has the volume on, has the alert notifications on, and is new enough to receive the alert). It worked, more or less, the way the alert is supposed to work. It went out, people’s phones activated the emergency alert/alarm, and eyeballs saw the pic of the missing kid.
Except that a lot of people reacted badly to the alert for a number of reasons. However, let’s focus on a pretty clear and equally important distinction. Nobody REALLY reacted badly to the alert, they know what Amber Alerts are, and there isn’t suddenly a boost in the number of sociopaths around the province who don’t care about kids and are willing to say so publicly. No, what they reacted badly to was that after 11:00 p.m. at night, while many were either sleeping or resting comfortably and quietly at home, their emergency alert went off on their phones, waking some of them up and scaring the crap out of a huge number of them. Most of them immediately grabbed their phones in panic and thought, “What the **** is happening?”. War of the Worlds redux? Tornado? Earthquake? Doug Ford had a new policy idea?
Then they picked up their phone, saw the Amber Alert, went through the reaction of dismay, regret, sheepishness for panicking, etc., and then moved on to irritation and outright anger. Not that they got an Amber Alert, but they got a SCARY AND LOUD Amber Alert. Late at night. And a lot of them took to social media to complain, but a not insignificant number actually called 911 and the police tip lines to complain about how the alert was done.
People on social media keep posting about how terrible this reaction is, after all it’s a missing kid, and it was fueled by the police proactively saying the response was “disappointing”. Actually, I didn’t find it disappointing or upsetting at all. Because people knew this was going to happen.
For a bit of context, the new emergency alert system on all the phones is partly designed to replace the old antiquated system of air raid sirens and TV broadcast signals. Do you remember it on TV? It was a multi-coloured bar graph image that said over top with loud beeping that “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. This is only a test.”. New era, new lives, new ways to communicate, so the governments (municipal, provincial, federal) all got together with cell phone service providers and mandated that all the new phones would have this. They tested it last fall, and it was an abysmal failure. But I digress.
The point IS that the Amber Alert uses the exact same system. So, the Amber Alert that was issued did the equivalent of setting off every emergency air raid siren from Windsor to Montreal. The kinds of alerts that are issued to tell people they are in immediate danger, seek shelter, or in a certain era, to ridiculously duck and cover. The alerts are LOUD, SCARY (like a klaxon), and ATTENTION-GRABBING. You could not hear one and think, “Oh, maybe I got a new email” or “Someone must have tagged me on Facebook, how cute”.
The powers-that-be who run the Amber Alerts want to make sure people see the alerts, so using the same klaxon guarantees everyone will see it. When the system was being designed, and people said they could use it for Amber Alerts, policy people said, “Wait, what? You want to use an air raid siren for a missing kid? Don’t you think people will complain when they find out it’s not ‘imminent danger, seek shelter’?”. They hoped and assumed, wrongly, that it would be a handful of people, despite evidence it wouldn’t be “just” a handful, but noting that it would depend on the context. If it was during the day, and the kid was found using the Amber Alert, people would probably say “Okay, it works”. The worst case scenario for the AAs was that the first one would be at night, and the Amber Alert would not only NOT help, but also it was going to turn out to be a terrible outcome. Which it mostly did. While Machiavelli is wrongly quoted as saying “the ends justify the means”, his real advice was that when people judge your means, they will look to the outcome. Success can bury a lot of displeasure.
But the government knew all this when they made the decision. It went ahead anyway, it happened, and they got a backlash of people who look at the decision and think, “This is the stupidest implementation ever.” As customer feedback goes, that’s pretty damn important feedback to get from your citizens. You dismiss it at your peril, particularly if you write it off as just citizen douchebaggery.
Instead, let’s look at what the policy goal of the Amber Alerts requires.
First and foremost, it requires eyeballs. It is not unlike herd immunity for vaccines, you need as many people as possible, hopefully EVERYONE, to see the Amber Alerts. And while you think that “settles the matter”, as a lot of people on social media seem to claim, it doesn’t. In fact, it points to a GIANT problem. Because if the alarm goes off while people are sleeping, and it scares the crap out of them enough to piss them off, what are they going to do? They’re going to turn it off. I don’t mean turn off their phones, I mean they’re going to follow the advice of a bunch of people posting on social media — they’re going to turn off the alerts. All Amber Alerts, all emergency broadcasts. Bye-bye herd immunity. There’s a simple fix, make the Amber Alert a less invasive alarm. They’ll still get it, it will still pop up on their screen, but you won’t be pissing them off enough to go unvaccinated.
Second, there is no Good Samaritan law in Canada that requires people to do ANYTHING, EVER. Mostly because the history of Good Samaritan laws tends not to compel people to do anything, it just makes courts play Monday morning quarterback to punish someone for not doing “anything” to help someone in need, which requires a pretty detailed case-by-case analysis that is almost never able to prove malicious intent. Without that legal compulsion in place, Amber Alerts desperately need the rationale goodwill of the citizens. 100%. In popular vernacular, “If you see something, say something.” If they’re annoyed by the KLAXON ALARM, they’re trying to shut it off as fast as they can. They’re not looking at the pic to see if maybe they saw the person, they’re just mashing buttons to get it to stop. And as soon as that emotion of irritation kicks in, the ability to focus and thoughtfully review the image is greatly reduced in efficacy, if not gone completely.
You absolutely do NOT want someone trying to shut it off just to shut it off.
A lot of people argued that sending it after 11:00 p.m. was the problem, that they couldn’t possibly see anyone anyway if they were at home or even asleep. That won’t wash though…maybe you were at a diner hours earlier and saw them. Maybe you passed them checking into a motel. Maybe they were getting gas near you an hour ago. The alerts have to be on the phone and you have to see them as soon as you check your phone. Preferably with some sort of prompt to get you to check your phone when you can.
Some people said, “No, we really wanted people to see it who were out driving.” Wait, really? Someone is suggesting that the “safe” solution is for you to be driving down a highway, not touching your phone in any way, shape or form since that’s ILLEGAL in Ontario, but it’s okay to suddenly have every driver reaching to figure out how to turn off a BLARING KLAXON IN THEIR CAR? That’s a “PLAN”? Try again.
Others complained that the scope was too wide. This is the worst problem for Amber Alerts. Often in the case of a missing child, there’s a parent involved, not a kid getting grabbed at the mall. Say, for example, Parent 1 handed over the child to Parent 2 for the day, perhaps 9:00 a.m. in the morning, and the kid was supposed to be dropped off at 6:00 p.m. By the time Parent 1 realizes Parent 2 is not coming, and alerts the police, and they do the basic confirmations that suggest it’s not a simple miscommunication, it could be 8:00 p.m. or later. Best case. Which means the kid has now been “missing” since 9:00 a.m., not 6:00 p.m. Eleven hours. Just driving, that puts a kid from Toronto halfway through Northern Ontario, all the way to Quebec City or into New Brunswick, or deep into the U.S. If airlines were possible, Europe, all of North America, and parts of South America are in play. So the scope is huge, even after a few hours.
But people aren’t completely wrong either. The initial percentage play is going to be closer to home, unless there is clear evidence otherwise. Perhaps issue the klaxon for everyone within 200 km. People will immediately see it as a “local problem” and give a lot of leeway. Use the other alert format for people outside that range. Or maybe 300 km. It’s not hard to field test and survey people. And it’s not like the government didn’t get told this would happen.
Eyeballs and goodwill. Both are required. But if people think the implementation was stupid, and are angry enough to actually have a significant number call 911 to complain (think about how small a percentage of people would do that, look at the numbers who did, and extrapolate backwards to the reactions), we won’t get either the eyeballs or the goodwill.
If you want to set off my alert? I’ll say go ahead. Any time, any day, anywhere. I’ll look at it, review it, and likely end up dismissing it. But you’ll get my eyeballs and my goodwill. I might be mildly irritated if I think it was badly implemented, but when I judge the means and look to the end, I’m okay with it. But I’m not surprised or upset that others don’t all feel the same way.
People knew that reaction would happen and decided it was worth the pain. I just hope we don’t lose the herd immunity in the process.