Next month, the UK government will be testing a new public warning system by sending out a siren-like alert to smartphone users across the country. The system will enable urgent messages to be sent by the Government and Emergency Services, warning the public of life-threatening situations such as flooding or wildfires.
The test is scheduled to take place on 23 April during the early evening, and phone users will have to acknowledge the alert before they can use other features on their devices. During the test, a message will appear on the home screens of people’s devices with vibration and a loud warning sound that will ring for about 10 seconds, regardless of whether the phone is set to silent.
The system became operational on Sunday 19th March and is modeled on similar schemes used in the US, Canada, Japan, and The Netherlands. It works on all 4G and 5G phone networks but will not include older “non-smart” phones. Emergency alerts will only ever come from the Government or Emergency Services and will initially focus on the most serious weather-related events. The messages will include details of the impacted area and instructions on how to respond. They will only be sent where there is an immediate risk to life, and some people may not receive an alert for months or years.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden has stated that the warnings are sent in a “very targeted way” and that, aside from the test, he hopes many people will never hear the alert again. People can opt-out by searching their device settings for emergency alerts and then turning off severe and extreme ones. But officials say the alerts could be life-saving and therefore advise against switching them off.
According to the Cabinet Office, the service will be both secure and free of charge. Moreover, it has been designed not to gather personal information, such as the User’s identity, telephone number, or location.
The system operates via cell broadcasting technology, and the messages will be tailored to the recipient’s current location. However, it’s worth noting that location services need not be activated to receive the alerts.
This is because when an alert is triggered, it is broadcasted by all cell towers in a designated region, enabling the message to cover an area as large as an electoral ward.
The government has shared a video showcasing what the alerts will sound like as shown below.
Trials of the alert system have already been conducted in Reading and East Suffolk, and it will also be operational in 19 other countries that currently use it. Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who oversees emergency preparation and planning, stated that the technology would “revolutionise our ability” to inform individuals in immediate danger. In an interview on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show, he emphasised that the alert system’s sound could potentially save lives.
Dowden mentioned that the alerts would be heard in scenarios where people’s homes are at risk of flooding or are in danger, and their life is in jeopardy. National Fire Chiefs Council Chair, Mark Hardingham, remarked that the alert system would assist fire and rescue services in executing their duties, and provide support to communities in times of crisis. He expressed his desire to have the facility available in the UK to help people stay as safe as possible during an emergency.
According to Caroline Douglas, Executive Director for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management at the Environment Agency, the new alert system will enable officials to deliver warnings in a “timely and accurate” manner.