In the middle of our interview, Pelmorex executive Paul Temple is interrupted by a strident, apocalyptic alarm sound. He laughs and apologizes: "That's my phone, that's just my phone."
The nuclear-meltdown ringtone is fitting: after more than 15 years at Pelmorex, Temple has made it his business to warn Canadians of impending disasters.
Since the early 1990s, Pelmorex—which owns and operates a television channel called the Weather Network and its French equivalent Météomédia—has been developing a national alert system that gives authorities like first responders and government agencies the power to interrupt radio, satellite and television broadcasts to display emergency messages.
While some form of this has existed for years, participation had until recently been voluntary (and, according to Temple, rather unpopular). But the CRTC has just made the latest iteration of the program—dubbed the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System (or NAAD, with "System" wisely excluded from the acronym)— mandatory for all broadcasters.
So far, the list of possible emergency messages includes your run-of-the-mill earthquakes and tsunamis, but also makes provisions for geomagnetic storms (shortened to "MagnetStorm") and pyroclastic surges (volcano gas and rock explosions!). If the events represent life-threatening danger, then designated emergency service workers or government officials can use the NAAD system to send out geographically targeted messages that co-opt radio and television airwaves and immediately interrupt programming, replacing your Price Is Right rerun with a screaming red screen and equally blood-curdling sound.
Some Montreal-area residents got to hear the system in action on Tuesday afternoon, when a tornado warning (which was later lifted) broke through the airwaves to garble a series of unfortunately unintelligible instructions.
"I think Canada was slow in getting there but I think we're going to have a good system that's a model for others," Temple says.
But some broadcasters have expressed concern about the nature of these messages. Jarrett Mann, the president of University of Montreal student radio CISM, says he feels the program's mandate seems to have shifted.
"When the CRTC first approved this, they were talking about alerts in case of natural or industrial catastrophes," he says. "But since it's been implemented, there's talk of it being used for terrorist attacks and civil crisis, and that's a lot more subjective."
"You could have abuse, political manipulation, fear mongering," Mann cautions, a concern that could seem farfetched were it not for the imminent senate approval of Bill C-51.
The Pelmorex website's FAQ section provides little comfort or clarity on this matter, but rather states the list of possible messages is "endless" and "not limited to weather or environmental warnings." Still, Temple says he's confident no one would abuse the system or use it to spread partisan ideology.
"The first guy who tried to use it to flog a partisan thing would probably lose his job," he says. "It's a public emergency messaging system."
But who has access to this powerful communications system, and does it open the door for potential Max Headroom-type network hijack scenarios? In 2013, the emergency alert system in Great Falls, Montana, was hacked, sending out a warning about the zombie apocalypse (and prompting several people to call police).
Temple says that while "nothing is going to be foolproof," the system has been tested by third-party auditors and is as safe as possible. He explained the provinces' and territories' administrations are in charge of granting people authorization to use the NAAD System. "(They) have to take full responsibility for the content of the message, so I think they would be treating this pretty strictly," he says.
Then there is plain old human error: during 2011 CRTC proceedings, Temple recounted what he deemed "an embarrassing situation" during which an unnamed person or group "actually issued a test message and didn't follow proper protocol, and were issuing volcano warnings."
Today, Temple doesn't recall this anecdote, but says that issuing an accidental or erroneous broadcast-intrusive "threat to life" message would be complicated.
"It's kind of like online banking," he says. "You're asked a couple of times, 'Are you really sure that you want to do this?', and then once you get a final confirmation you have to put your password back in." The message is then sent off and broadcast with no further human intervention, he explains.
"Because we're dealing with threat to life messages, time is of the essence," says Temple. "So when that government, that authorized user presses submit for the last time, the time that it goes through our whole process here, assuming that they haven't violated any kind of technical standard, we're talking seconds."
Not an even price tag
It's also important to note that Pelmorex is a private corporation. Which means it partly relies on advertising dollars, in turn reliant on viewership, to exist. In a 2010 Globe and Mail article, titled "The Apocalypse is Good For Business," Pelmorex CEO Pierre Morrissette explained that audience numbers tend to spike during bad weather events. So would alerts—especially weather-related ones that send eyeballs to their networks—not be a boon for the company's television stations?
Temple says this isn't the case: "We have no advantage in that sense because everyone has it. We're making (these emergency messages) available free, to everyone, at the same time that it's made available to us."
Yet their role as the managers of the NAAD System does guarantee the Weather Network and Météomédia mandatory inclusion on every television or satellite subscriber's package, along with the handsome sum of $0.23 per user per month (roughly $0.10 more than the CBC / Radio-Canada). "That's the only way we'd have funds to invest to build and maintain (NAAD)," Temple explains.
For smaller broadcasters though, implementing the NAAD System came with a hefty price tag. Once the technology is updated, the alert system is free to use, but Mann estimates his organization would have to spend up to $10,000 on new technology. Luckily, his station, which serves a public of about 77,000 listeners a week, falls in the category of "campus, community and First Nations" radio stations that were given one extra year to set up the alarm infrastructure.
The total cost was much greater for the bigger players, whose operations are spread out across the country. The CBC originally tried to be exempt from the program, claiming the financial impact would be too great. The CRTC riposted that "holding a broadcasting licence is a privilege" and that broadcasters had a "duty to inform the public of imminent perils." CBC representatives told VICE that they had finally set up the NAAD System infrastructure "as soon as it became a condition of license" and that they viewed it as "part of the public service we are proud to offer Canadians."
Other networks—namely Bell, Bell Aliant, MTS, Shaw and Sogetel—have so far not integrated the new technology, and in their March press release the CRTC stated they were "disappointed" and "reluctantly" granting the companies a six month extension. Bell representatives told VICE they were currently working on the implementation.
Pelmorex is now testing the system across the country, though the absence of these big players seems to have led to patchy results. Temple seems confident the kinks will soon be ironed out. "Fingers crossed, touch wood."
Mann has less faith in the system's success. So far, he says the majority of the details he's received about the NAAD System rollout have come through vendors trying to sell him the necessary equipment, a disconcerting lack of communication given the system's mandate to inform. "This would be the first time in our 25 years of existence that someone could interrupt our programming," he says. "I'm holding off until I get more answers."
With files from Nick Rose.