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Toronto area sent nuclear alerts by mistake (thestar.com)
73 points by stevehiehn 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

I wonder how many people are killed per alert?

These alerts (usually AMBER alerts) are sent to millions of people, accompanied by a loud and startling siren.

You can imagine all sorts of "one-in-a-million" events. The surgeon woken in the middle of the night, who can't get back to sleep and makes a mistake the next day. The startled roofer falling off a ladder. Etc.

Not even that, the deaths and injuries are immediate for drivers. Canada implemented this in the worst way possible so that any alert gets the highest alert setting possible (Presidential: what would normally be reserved for an imminent attack) - bypassing silence, do not disturb, and any volume or device setting. So Imagine a truck driver at 3 am being suddenly startled by the blaring alert and then scrambling to shut up the noise.

This will almost certainly be one of those things that future generations will look at us and wonder "wait they did what?".

Unfortunately the current dialog in Canada about this is "why do you hate children?" if you do anything but genuflect towards our AMBER alert system.

In the US, I assumed most people turn AMBER alerts off on their phones. Some people seem to get mad about people disabling them but some people get mad at just about everything.

I highly doubt "most people" even know how to do this.

Most people I know forget about their existence but disable them as soon as they get one on a new phone.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone near me in the US who has even thought to disable it. We might get one alert every few years.

I used to get them once a month or so. I disabled them.

As with most good things, if it's abused, it stops working as intended.

I don't believe this is true. I received these alerts this morning, but as my phone is only on vibrate it did not produce any audio.

I think if it's set to silent/vibrate, it won't generate audio on most phones.

But as I'm on-call for my organization, that's not an option.

Half the truck drivers are futzing with their phone anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about an emergency broadcast causing mayhem. There’s certainly no evidence of alert induced carnage.

I think that these things are annoying, and since they are controlled at the state/provincial/territorial/major metro level, there’s going to be a bell curve of competence. (With the bottom being Hawaii where a single operator with a defective control panel was able to send a incoming ballistic missile attack warning)

>any alert gets the highest alert setting possible (Presidential: what would normally be reserved for an imminent attack) - bypassing silence, do not disturb, and any volume or device setting

Not that I was looking to move, but Canada is no longer on my list of countries I'd be willing to live in.

The Canadian government is pretty much uniformly incompetent as an institution.

I honestly can't think of a single thing in my lifetime they haven't bungled.

Not going into Iraq.

I've been in a car when four cell phones started blaring, and it definitely startled the shit out of me. I'm sure people have crashed as a result.

I fully expect to see a "killed by amber alert" news story, because it just seems inevitable.

I'm also worried this will add to NIMBY re: nuclear power.

Not a good look for the entire province to be momentarily scared shitless about a potential incoming meltdown completely unnecessarily.

I'm in Ontario, and my first half asleep thought after being jarringly woken by this was "grab the kids and start driving south". Then I remembered I'm like 100km+ away.

The signal these events give off is really weak, but with enough events the question could be statistically resolved by looking for an effect on death rates. Interesting.

Probably zero. You can imagine all sorts of things that don't happen.

It's pretty clear that the current Ontario emergency alert system doesn't have enough checks.

They need to pause the whole system and add in an external approval before messages are sent out.

Also everything is sent out at the "Presidential Alert Level". Presumably because someone gave the contract to their cousin.

Until the time its needed and there is a delay on sending out the message because the person(s) with the second set of auths isn't available and there is even more press about alerts to the public were delayed because of red tape in the alert system.

As someone who recently sent out notifications to a ton of people by mistake (accidentality set a number of twitch streams to live instead of just testing so sending out a ton of "X just went live" notifications for a handful of channels) a simple "Are you really sure you want to do this action? It will do this..." confirmation message goes a long way without the need of a 2nd person to auth the action. Just don't do the confirmation message unless its needed to prevent training people to just click though it.

Reminds me an accident which was caused in Hawaii by bad UI and following rather funny examples of how can bad UI screw things up: https://gfycat.com/blog/hawaii-missile-gifs-alert-terrible-u...

Because of this alert I actually learned that Ontario Power Generation and the city of Toronto offer free Potassium Iodine pills to anyone living within 50km of the reactor in case of a radiation leak:


> How many pills should I have on hand?

> Each adult in the household should have 4 pills available, and each child should have two pills available. This is enough for 2 days supply.

Is this enough? The radioactive half life of I-?131? is 8 days. Or is the dose so high that you won't uptake any from the environment for a while?

Presumably you have evacuated by then.

There is more info available here:


and here, about dosing: (pdf warning)


Or are they counting on their ability to distribute more pills within 2 days.

Seems like a strange situation to hope for the best and cut costs.

Maybe I underestimate the cost of iodine.

I suspect they were worried about people getting free iodine for their meth labs and nuclear safety somehow lost to that battle...

The initial alert happened at 7:24 aim.

Between 8:06 am and 9:12 am a number of government officials, starting with the Pickering Fire Chief via CP24 [0] started announcing that the alert was sent in error.

At 9:12 am we were told the alert was sent by mistake via the alert system.

At 12:55 pm we were finally told that there actually was no nuclear incident, and the alert was sent by accident during training [1].

Why the hell did it take 42 minutes for any sort of public information to be broadcast after the initial alert.

Why the hell did it take an additional hour and 6 minutes to realize they should send that information through the official system, instead of letting people wonder what information is accurate and what information is caused by the fog of war. Note that the same places we were told it was a mistake were previously telling us people were responding to an incident [2].

Why the hell did it take an entire 6 hours after the alert for the authorities to inform us that there hadn't actually been a nuclear accident, instead of a nuclear accident that was contained enough they didn't feel the need to alert us via emergency systems?

[0] https://twitter.com/CP24/status/1216345708971929600

[1] https://news.ontario.ca/mcscs/en/2020/01/statement-from-the-...

[2] https://twitter.com/CP24/status/1216337813957947393

Even if it was not a mistake, why would they send a presedential alert to the entire province just to tell them that people 10km away from the nuclear plant are in no danger? Pretty absurd, wish I could fully disable these alerts until the government is actually competently using them.

> wish I could fully disable these alerts until the government is actually competently using them.

They're LTE only, so I've disabled them by disabling LTE and sticking to 3G.

The speeds are fast enough (15mbps peaks). And with $10/gig data prices, it's not like I'll ever down/upload large files over wireless.

The problem is that I was used to getting a push notification almost immediately from every news source on Amber Alerts, but not this time.

I think news orgs didn't know how to handle it. Especially since the public was directed to listen to them, but they had no messaging.

i am not sure i understand the reactions here... why are people mad?

the first message was very reasonable. it even said there is "no danger". to check with media and authorities. the second said the first was human error.

if i were driving, i would stop the car, call 911 and ask if anything was going on. they would probably say no, then i would be on my way. instead there is now an investigation, and someone who is already having a very bad day for their mistake is going to get punished even harsher...

should we start having trainings about these so people realize the possibility that these will become useful one day instead of getting mad?

> if i were driving, i would stop the car, call 911 and ask if anything was going on. they would probably say no

They weren't saying "no", they were saying "we have no idea". If everyone called 911, they would be totally swamped, please don't do that.

> call 911 and ask

Calls to 911 usually take 2-5 minutes for anyone to answer in Toronto when there is nothing particular going on (not kidding you, there is a message playing in the meantime like "we'll answer soon, please hold") because the govt is so hellbent on cutting costs that the emergency lines are understaffed. So imagine what happens when everyone does that... No operators for 15 minutes for anyone. Ontario really has become a ridiculous place.

> if i were driving, i would stop the car, call 911 and ask if anything was going on. they would probably say no, then i would be on my way.

9-1-1 would've said: "We don't know either. We know as much as you do". Which would only be more concerning.

>wish I could fully disable these alerts

Can't you? On my iPhone, I can. I'm not sure I would--although I have one category of alert disabled, but I can.

On my Android I've turned off everything in the emergency alerts section but they still go through. I think that you aren't able to disable presidential alerts on Android, which happens to be the only alert level Ontario uses.

Looking at the Android source code, it looks like you're right:

> Presidential alert is default on and cannot be turned off.


> CMAS Presidential must be always on (See 3GPP TS 22.268 Section 6.2) regardless [of the] user's preference


> A CMAS-capable User Interface (UI) shall support the ability for the user to opt-out of only the Imminent Threat and Child Abduction Emergency Warning Notifications. When a Presidential Warning Notification is received, it is always presented to the user whenever Cell Broadcast Service via GSM/UMTS or warning message delivery via E-UTRAN is enabled on the UE.


Seems like no one working in the Canadian government has heard about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

That may be true on the iPhone in the US as well. Apple support doesn't say anything about it AFAIK but I did find an article suggesting you can't turn Presidential alerts off. (Though I don't think I've ever seen one.)

There was a test message sent last year when the system was first implemented. It has significant news coverage at the time (most of it along the lines of “Trump wants to send notifications you can’t block to your phone”) but it was definitely heavily featured that they aren’t blockable.

Pickering area -- 40 km away from Toronto. Nonetheless, training exercise that erroneously issued a provide-wide alert.

The Pickering plant is only about 3 km from the city of Toronto's border. While it was selected in the 60s as a relatively remote site, it's now a heavily urbanized area considered part of Greater Toronto.

It's strange that this article says "Toronto area" - it was sent to the entire province of Ontario.

I'm in Gatineau, Québec and we got it too, so it even got broadcast to neighbouring provinces.

I was wondering about this today. How granular are the 'zones' used for these alerts? Is it just by political boundary? For something like Pickering, it would be useful to have a more geographical zone -- including parts of the US. Could the alert be sent out and limited to cell towers within a selected zone? Is the current system using tower location?

They have the ability to geotarget them, but fail at it regularly.

From what I understood from spectrum auctions, Gatineau Quebec is a part of the Ottawa area, so they're probably a part of Ontario side when it comes to cell system back-end.

I posted the news link to HN with this title. I now agree it's not accurate but didn't realize the scale of the alert at the time.

Pickering is considered part of the GTA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Toronto_Area

What kind of alert boundaries are there? Presumably radiation doesn't follow political boundaries.

Reminder to check out this amazing, heroic story of this man: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

This was pretty freaky.

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