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Civil Contingencies Secretariat working in partnership with the mobile phone industry and local responders: Public emergency alerts – mobile alerting trials

Background

During an emergency it is vital that emergency responders can contact members of the public in order to give them important, potentially life saving information.

While current arrangements such as use of sirens and deploying officers to the scenes of incidents are satisfactory for a range of emergency scenarios, improvements can be made. Most notably these improvements include the speed with which members of the public are notified and the way in which responders can contact people ‘on the move’.

In a world where mobile phone ownership continues to soar (92% of the UK public now own a mobile phone) and where demand for information ‘on the go’ is expected, advancements in technology must be considered when striving for improvements to public emergency alert systems. This is why the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) are working in partnership with the mobile industry and local responders to trial different approaches to mobile alerting that would target members of the public in an area impacted by an emergency, via their mobile device.

One very important part of this proposed capability is that it would NOT require the government or local responders (eg the police or your council) to know individual personal numbers. It would also NOT require people to sign up to receive messages. Instead, the idea is that if you are in an area where an emergency occurs then you will be sent a location based alert which will convey important protective action for you to take.

2. About the trials

3 trials will be run this autumn, working with 3 of the UK’s biggest mobile network operators to test different technical approaches for such a system. 2 different approaches will be tested as part of the trials:

There are pros and cons for each approach which mean that trials are necessary to conclude which provides the optimal service for the public. There are examples of these approaches in use across the world. For example the United States and the Netherlands both employ a cell broadcast based approach, whilst in Australia a location-based SMS system is being rolled out.

The trials will take place in 3 locations:

These areas have been chosen to provide a good geographic coverage of the UK and a balance of urban-rural areas and are not in response to any increased levels of risk or threat. In addition to national level communications, each local area has developed a communications plan to inform local communities that might be affected by the trials.

3. Trial progress

We are delighted to share our progress with you via our trial update (below) which we will refresh regularly throughout the project.

3.1 October 2013

Project Support Officer Charlotte Lawrence offers her thoughts on the recent trial in Glasgow:

The trial in Glasgow represented the biggest single trial in terms of the expected number of recipients. To ensure this went to plan we worked meticulously over the course of many weeks with Glasgow City Council and Telefónica O2 to ensure we got the concept right and all project stakeholders understood our aims and objectives. This culminated in last Thursday afternoon sending out thousands of text messages to those handsets in a specified area of Glasgow city centre. It was a really useful experience and we learnt a great deal about the system.

I’m delighted with the public’s response to the project too, having had far more expressions of interest in our focus groups than my project manager had expected! We’re still keen to hear people’s views on the system so if you have the time I would urge you to complete our survey.

3.2 September 2013

This week Simon Wright, Emergency Planning Officer from North Yorkshire County Council provides his reflections on the recent trial:

Media coverage was, in general positive, with little or no reaction by the public and only a small rise in hits on our webpage. An early mistake by the local radio station reporting it as a “test of a new flood alerting system”, and a news item linking it to warning of a nuclear strike highlighted the need for local media officers to emphasise that it is a technology test only, and NOT linked to a specific threat – as amusing as it was for listeners and viewers!

I was surprised that the different handsets reacted in different ways on receipt of the Cell Broadcast message, but the variety of ways in which they displayed was thought provoking and would need more dialogue with handset manufacturers.

The length of time that the Broadcast message can be sent or adjusted would enable you to create an “alert bubble” around an incident area which could be updated as a situation develops. I see this as an invaluable tool especially if the incident was over a wide area or multiple sites.

This was an excellent opportunity for us to embrace evolving technologies and work with the service provider, EE and the Emergency Planning College to trial new warning and informing capabilities in North Yorkshire.

We are keen to be involved in future trials and will continue to learn lessons from the further trials in Suffolk and Glasgow.

4. Evaluating the trials

The trials will be evaluated drawing on information from 3 different perspectives:

The project team are keen to hear your thoughts on the work so if you have some spare time please complete our survey or email us at public.alert@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk.

No decision has been made at this point how this work might evolve in the future. Once the trials have been conducted, CCS will produce a report in early 2014, detailing the findings of the trials and recommending a way forward for consideration by the government. A copy of this report will also be published on GOV.UK.

 

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