Featured Article : What’s All This Fuss About A National Alarm?

5th April 2023

With the UK government’s new ‘Emergency Alerts’ system now live, we take a look at what it is and how it will work.

What Are ‘Emergency Alerts’? 

The UK government’s Emergency Alerts service, managed by the government’s Cabinet Office, enables the government to send important public safety messages directly to people’s mobile phones in specific geographic areas during emergencies.

What Kind Of Emergencies? 

This system is designed to alert people of situations that may threaten their safety, such as severe weather, industrial incidents or terrorist attacks and is only to be used in times of serious emergencies.

The government says, “in the UK, alerts could be used to tell residents of villages being encroached by wildfires, or of severe flooding” and that “their initial use will focus on the most serious severe weather-related incidents, including severe flooding in England.” 

To Be Used Very Rarely 

The plan is that Emergency Alerts will be used very rarely and will only be sent where there is an immediate risk to people’s lives.

The government says the Emergency Alerts system will “… bolster the UK’s resilience and provides the capability to send alerts direct to mobile phones when there is a risk to life”. 

How Does It Work? 

The alerts are going to be sent via a technology called ‘Cell Broadcast,’ which enables messages to be sent to all mobile phones within range of designated mobile phone towers. This means that alerts are targeted to people in specific areas, rather than being sent to all phones across the country. The government says the system will be able to get urgent messages quickly to nearly 90 percent of mobile phones in a defined area.

When an alert is sent, a loud siren-like sound will play, and a message will appear on the screen of the phone. The message will provide information about the emergency situation and instructions on what to do next.

UK-Wide Test Planned For The Evening Of Sunday 23 April 

Although the system is now live and there have been successful tests in East Suffolk and Reading, the UK government is warning that a UK-wide alerts test will take place in the early evening of Sunday 23 April. This will see people receive a test message on their mobile phones.

Has Worked Well In Other Countries 

Emergency Alerts services have already been used successfully in a number of other countries, including the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and Japan, where they have been credited with saving lives, for example, during severe weather events.

Well Received 

The introduction of an Emergency Alerts service has been well received by emergency services in the UK.

For example, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mark Hardingham, said: “We’ve seen this type of system in action elsewhere across the world and we look forward to having the facility here in the UK – by working together with fire services and partners we want this system to help us to help you be as safe as you can if a crisis does hit.” 

Also, as highlighted by Executive Director for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management at the Environment Agency, Caroline Douglass: “Being able to communicate warnings in a timely and accurate manner during incidents is really important to help people take action to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbours.” 

Privacy Protected

For those worried about the potential for privacy and security issues related to the service, the UK government is assuring people that it will only broadcast from cell towers in the vicinity of an emergency, the alerts are secure, free to receive, and one-way. The government also says that the broadcast won’t reveal anyone’s location, no personal data will be collected, and the alerts can only be sent by authorised Governmental and Emergency Services users.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

With climate change-related weather incidents on the increase, a pandemic and its changing restrictions just passed, terror incidents in cities, and with most people now owning a mobile-phone, Emergency Alerts sounds like a good idea in theory. It has worked well in other countries and so should work here and if it can help to protect businesses and individuals from the worst excesses of weather incidents (for example), buy them vital time and save lives, then there can be few compelling arguments against it. There are, however, always concerns about privacy although the government has given assurances that the system will operate in a very private and localised way.