The UK government is testing its emergency alert system on mobile phones. Tens of millions of phones will receive an emergency alert accompanied by a distinct sound, vibration, and message at 3 pm on 22 August 2021. The test will last for about ten seconds and inform people that a new service has launched that can warn them of any life-threatening emergencies nearby. Ministers hope this test will help the public get used to the alerts’ appearance and sound. In the future, alerts will be sent out during crises such as extreme weather, flooding, and fires.
Positive and Negative Feedback on the System
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has assured the public that they can swipe away the notification and go about their day. However, critics have raised concerns that the alerts could put people’s safety at risk. Domestic violence victims who keep a secret phone and drivers who may become distracted are examples of these risks.
How the Technology Works
The emergency alerts will be broadcast via mobile phone masts and work on all 4G and 5G phone networks. Unlike the government’s lockdown orders during the pandemic, SMS messages were not sent directly to phone numbers. This means whoever sends an alert does not need the recipient’s number, so it’s not something that needs a reply or results in a voicemail if missed. No location or other data will be collected either. These alerts could also be sent to tablets and smartwatches with their data plans.
Potential Flaws and Future Improvements
There have been instances where emergency alerts have not gone according to plan. For example, an emergency alert warning millions of people of an “incident” at a nuclear power plant near Toronto in Canada was wrongly pushed out in 2020. Similar errors occurred in Hawaii and Florida. Despite these occurrences, Everbridge, the US company that helped build the UK’s alert system, has worked on similar tech for governments and mobile networks in other countries. The company has assured the public that this will be a “game-changer” for public safety. The EU has recently introduced a directive requiring member states to have a phone-based public warning system. The technology will be improved continuously, with the potential to integrate satellite technology, which could help people in emergencies without any mobile masts nearby.
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