The UK government have announced that a test message and alarm is expected to hit 90% of mobile phones at a set time later this month. A siren will go off on nearly every smartphone in the country at 3pm, on Sunday 23 April.
The alert system, which consists of 10 seconds of sound and vibration, is being introduced with a long term view to being able to warn the public of extreme weather events, such as flash floods, hurricane force winds, or wildfires; as well as offering the potential to be used in terror situations, or civil defence emergencies if the UK were to ever come under attack.
Oliver Dowden is the minister in charge and he has assured the general public that it will only ever be used where there is a genuine and immediate risk to life, and would always be area specific. He believes the timing of the test is at a time which will minimise disruption to people’s every day lives.
They have taken into account the London Marathon which starts at 9.30am, as well as an FA cup semi-final later in the afternoon; although organisers of the test do seem to have failed to recognise that they have chosen St Georges’ Day and as a consequence, all the celebrations that occur, could well be affected.
Phone users who have their device switched off will not receive the alert.
Driving home the message
The government has tried to play down concerns that the sudden alarm could distract drivers who, whilst they may be aware of its timing, are likely in many instances to have forgotten about it happening during their journey and the alert could create a shock, which may lead to accidents.
Officials have pointed to local trials which have been held in East Suffolk and Reading, which suggest motorists will wait until they are stationary before checking their devices. There does seem an element of naivety in this regard, but they remain confident.
Already in use in many countries
All 4G and 5G Android and Apple phones are already fitted with emergency alert capability, and they work on those networks, and similar systems are in use in the Japan, United States, Canada, and the Netherlands; plus at least a dozen other countries around the world.
If the phone is in “airplane” mode the alert will not be heard; neither will it work on older “non-smart” devices.
Big brother NOT watching
Mr Dowden was keen to play down worries that this was going to be the start of a stream of messages sent regularly by the government in a “big brother is watching” style. The service will be secure, free to receive and will not collect personal information, such as someone’s telephone number, identity, or location.
He said the bar is set exceptionally high, and stressed that the warnings would be sent in a “very targeted way” and other than the test, the chances are that a large percentage of the population may not receive an alert for years, or indeed ever. If a situation were to develop where the real thing needed to happen, then the messages will include details of the area impacted and instructions about how to respond.
Alerted regardless of location
The new system uses cell broadcasting technology and messages will be based on someone’s current location, but location services do not need to be switched on to receive the alerts. That is because when an alert is triggered, all cell towers in a defined area will broadcast it, allowing the message to reach an area the size of an electoral ward.
Positive move as far as services concerned
Executive Director for flood and coastal erosion risk management, Caroline Douglas, from the Environment Agency, was delighted with the improvements. She said the system would allow officials to communicate warnings in a “timely and accurate manner”.
Backing her up is National Fire Chiefs Council chairman Mark Hardingham who was equally impressed, declaring the alerts as a definite means to assist the fire and rescue services to do their jobs and to help communities in the event of emergencies. He said: “We have seen this type of system in action elsewhere across the world and we look forward to having the facility here in the UK.”
Adding a note of re-assuring caution, Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “Alongside partners, we will continue to listen carefully to public feedback and ensure the use of emergency alerts has a positive impact.”
Government failure in considering domestic violence situations
However, striking a more pessimistic chord was Sharon Bryan from the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) who saw a genuine possibility of the alert having a grave effect for some people who have a hidden second mobile.
These are seen as an emergency lifeline for victims and survivors living under the constant threat of abuse, or worse, but in this instance it could have the opposite effect. “This siren test may unexpectedly reveal their presence to abusers, with disastrous consequences.”
Opting out could be option for those in vulnerable positions
People do have the opportunity to opt out by searching their device settings for emergency alerts and then turning off severe and extreme ones. However, officials are encouraging against that as they say the alerts could be life-saving and are stressing the point that they will in effect “revolutionise our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger.”
Nevertheless, the NCDV fear was echoed by Emma Pickering, senior operations tech abuse manager at Refuge, who also recognised the likelihood of concealed devices being uncovered by the loud siren and instead of the alert being a life-saver, it could actually put those facing domestic abuse in real danger from their perpetrators.
Government offer reassurances
The government again attempted to offer up reassurance, and said it has been actively engaging with organisations working with vulnerable women and girls to ensure they are not adversely affected by the introduction of emergency alerts.
To opt-out of the service, users simply have to go to a phone’s settings, and on an iOS device enter the “Notifications” tab where it is possible to disable “severe alerts” and “extreme alerts”. Android device users should search for “emergency alert” in their phone’s settings and then “turn off”.
Sporting events taken into account
Mr Dowden has been very bullish about not only the system, but also how he believes the test will go. He and his advisors are of the opinion that they are across everything that is happening on 23 April, stating that they have avoided any disruption to the London Marathon – one of the biggest events of the year – by not scheduling the alert for the morning.
“We chose the afternoon for it because that is quieter than the morning when people are more likely to be shopping or attending church services,” the minister said.
They have also taken into consideration that the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion is taking place later in the afternoon, preventing any unnecessary alarm amongst tens of thousands of spectators.
Lack of saintly appreciation by government
What the government do seem to have completely disregarded is the fact that it is St Georges’ Day on that particular Sunday, which although year after year they have demonstrated actually means very little to them, they have failed to appreciate that right across the country it is a massive deal, with people proud of their patron saint, eager to celebrate in all manner of ways.
Consequently, there will be hundreds of events that will be affected, which could have been averted by choosing an alternative day to one of the most popular in the entire year, to carry out their test.