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How emergency alerts can harm those in vulnerable situations

For the general public, emergency alerts are "absolutely no issue," says one UBC associate professor. But for others, like those in domestic violence situations, they could cause harm.

In B.C., emergency alerts distribute urgent notice to the public about extreme weather events, civil emergencies and Amber Alerts.

And although the alerts can be useful during crises, they can also cause harm to individuals who are in vulnerable living situations, or experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV).

This is because some vulnerable individuals might have a phone that they've hidden away — unknown to their abuser, which could further escalate the violence.

"Just the identification of finding out that somebody has hidden, a potentially useful resource, will cause an escalation of the violence. Then, the scrambling to find the phone and get the alert shut off — which of course, you cannot do — will trigger all kinds of drama in a household that undoubtedly has experienced it before," says Lea Caragata, an associate professor at the School of Social Work in the University of British Columbia. 

"Unless the person is lucky enough to have the alert come when the abuser is not home, that's not setting up a very good circumstance."

It's also possible that some individuals have hidden phones for other reasons, besides safekeeping for a future escape.

"I certainly have come across many, many women who have phones, because they're simply not allowed to have one. It's just their means of communication with the world. Otherwise, they're in complete, complete isolation."

How alerts can cause unintended harm

iPhone and Android users in the United Kingdom who are experiencing intimate partner violence have the option to toggle the emergency alert off in their phone settings.

But this is not an option for people in Canada.

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, mobile users must turn on airplane mode to avoid receiving the loud alerts. Although the federal agency notes that putting iPhones or Androids on silent mode and vibrate mode will silence the alerts, they conducted their testing procedures on select, older iPhone and Android models.

This means it is up to the vulnerable individual to find the applicable instructions for turning off alerts based on their phone type.

"It's very phone-dependent. So it does rely on somebody who's got the patience to read through this long [report]: see what kind of phone they have, and take the necessary precautions. Airplane mode does the trick for most iPhones. But for all of the other variants, it's very specific kinds of things that people have to do in order to sign up," says Caragata.

But even then, these customizations can also pose a different threat to an individual's safety in a violent home.

"There's always the risk that you haven't followed [the instructions] correctly, or that they don't quite work on your model, or any number of other things like that."

Caragata emphasizes that emergency alerts are "hugely important."

However, the UBC associate professor also emphasizes that governments could implement provisions to allow certain cellphone numbers, accompanied with a rationale, to be omitted from the emergency alert system.

"There are women who are in vulnerable circumstances. And these alerts will out those hidden phones with potentially really, really disastrous consequences. And to impose the burden of trying to kind of manage that when people are already in vulnerable circumstances is to impose an unnecessary burden, given that we could relatively easily allow people to deregister certain phones from the system."