Learning Zone: National Public Alerting Systems

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During emergencies, alert systems can provide a crucial way of conveying important, potentially lifesaving information to members of the public. The UK Government has committed to evaluating how our existing alert systems can be improved.

In November 2018, shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the European Parliament made modern public warning obligatory for all member states. Citizens in a high-risk area will be able to receive an SMS or alert on their mobile phone in case of an emergency, informing them what is happening and how to remain safe. The telecommunications legislation – The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) is one of the most important for European safety with provisions on public warning, emergency location and accessibility. Such systems need to be in place by June 2022. Whether or not the UK will be in the European Union at this time is unclear, but what is clear, is that alerting systems of this kind are already saving lives around the world.

Canada

Since April 2018, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has required that all wireless service providers in Canada distribute emergency alerts sent from Canada’s national public alerting system, Alert Ready, to all their subscribers. These alerts are generated by emergency officials across Canada to warn the public of hazards such as fires, floods, abducted children, and other life-threatening events. The first test of the new wireless alert system was conducted in May 2018 with mixed results. Ontario and Quebec tested their systems first and ran into some difficulty with delivering the messages, but after adjustments were made, the provinces who tested later saw improved results.

That first test did a good job of exposing areas of improvement, such as the need for the public to update their device software to be compatible with the new alerting technology and to be connected to a 5G network. At the time of the May 2018 tests, wireless providers were required to only ensure that half of their devices available for sale were compatible, and even that may still have required a software update by consumers.

In addition to these two public tests, the last year has seen the wireless emergency alert system used for actual emergencies. Since April 2018 there have been 115 real emergency alerts sent by the wireless system across Canada, for life-threatening hazards such as fires, floods, and tornadoes. Wireless emergency alerts have been credited with saving numerous lives including those who took shelter during tornado outbreaks last summer and abducted children who were rescued because a member of the public recognised them from an AMBER alert received by their phone.

Sweden

On 1 July 2017, Sweden introduced VMA, a public warning mechanism that uses SMS to alert the population in case of an emergency.

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SOS Alarm, the government owned organisation handling 112 calls, is able to send an SMS directly to the mobile phone of users who are in an affected area. Anyone carrying a mobile phone in the area relevant to the warning will be able to receive the SMS.

Sweden introduced the SMS alert in addition to other channels of public warning, such as TV, radio and sirens.

USA

The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system in the USA was launched in 2012 and been used more than 40,000 times to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children, and other critical situations – all through alerts on compatible cell phones and other mobile devices.

WEA is a public safety system that allows customers who own certain wireless phones and other compatible mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area.

Alerts are broadcast to coverage areas that best approximate the zone of an emergency. From November 2019, wireless providers must improve geo-targeting of alerts even further. This means that if an alert is sent to a zone in New York, all WEA-capable mobile devices in that zone can receive the alert, even if they are roaming or visiting from another state.

UK

In February 2012, the Cabinet Office completed a trial to extend the scope of the Environment Agency’s Floodline Warnings Direct service. Following consultation with emergency responders in the summer of the 2012 the Cabinet Office decided that the improvements this would provide would not justify the high cost and effort required for implementation. As such it was recommended that efforts focus instead on developing a capability to issue alerts to mobile devices in defined areas instead.

In 2013 a project was launched to complete a series of trials in partnership with three of the UK’s mobile network operators and emergency responders to assess different methods of achieving this. Three different trials took place between September and November, during which 35,000 messages were sent to the public. National and local communications campaigns were held to ensure people in the participating areas were aware of the nature and purpose of the trials.

Feedback from the trial areas demonstrated that emergency responders were still very keen to see the implementation of a national mobile alert system. Views from members of the public also suggest that the vast majority of people (85%) felt that a mobile alert system was a good idea. Public views on “intended compliance with advice” issued in the sample alert messages was also high (81%). This suggests that not only would alerts be seen as a useful service by the public but that it would also be an effective way of getting people to take specific protective action during an emergency.

Following these trials, there are two options for implementing such a system. The first is a traditional SMS message using cellular broadcast towers to send the message only to people in the relevant geographical area. The second is via a ‘cell broadcast,’ which works in largely the same way as an SMS, but appears on a user’s phone slightly differently. Both of them are able to reach people in a specific geographic area and inform them in a reliable manner quickly enough.

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Both systems have their strengths and drawbacks. SMS messages won’t be differentiated from other texts, so could be missed if a user has their phone on silent or ignored as spam.

The way cell broadcasts are presented depends on their network provider, but they’re generally much more prominent than standard text messages, flashing up an alert on screen and often playing a sound or vibrating even if users have their phone on silent.

Following these trials in Glasgow, Yorkshire and Suffolk in 2013, it was concluded that SMS would be the better option, partly because they’re cheaper to implement and make use of existing networks. Another advantage is that unlike cell broadcasts they allow users to be individually identified and sent messages even after they’ve left the area. That could prove particularly useful in case of chemical weapon incidents, for example, the 2018 Salisbury attack, where people in the area at the time might need to be contacted for medical check-ups.

Current status

There appears to have been lack of progress on the introduction of an emergency alerting system for the UK since the trial project report was published in March 2014.

In October 2016 Lord Harris’ Report on London’s preparedness to respond to a terrorist attack highlighted the need for such a system to be introduced and indeed was one of his 117 recommendations.

There may now be some movement, no doubt in part due to the impending European Parliament legislation deadline. Earlier in May 2019, there was a workshop of the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the police to identify more accurately the precise specifications of a public alerting scheme. The outcomes of thereof are yet to be published, but we will share them if and when they are. Also, later this year, the Environment Agency will be launching a trial scheme using cell broadcasting, and testing 4G technology to compare it with existing alerting capabilities.

Impact on Control Rooms

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There is no doubt that an emergency alerting system could have a significant impact on ensuring the preparedness and safety of the public in times of emergency and in a timely and effective way, potentially reducing unneeded inbound emergency calls and freeing up emergency services resources to focus on the actual emergency.

Whilst the implementation of such an alerting system within the UK is still in its infancy, co-ordination and communication across the emergency services as well as mobile operators will be crucial to ensure that timing and the detail of alerts is disseminated effectively. Control rooms will need to be briefed in real-time to ensure clarity and consistency of message as well as updates on evolving situations.

It is expected that any emergency alerts will be coordinated using command and control structures already in place and across other existing channels of communication, but this is yet to be determined until a central approach is agreed and tested.

Find out more

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Sources:

EENA
Lord Harris’s Report