Public emergency alerts: mobile alerting trials

1. 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:

  • cell Broadcast service (CBS): the broadcast of a text-type message to all handsets in a defined area
  • location-based SMS messaging: all numbers in a specific location receive a traditional SMS message

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:

  • North Yorkshire – 18 September
  • Glasgow – 3 October
  • Suffolk – 20 November

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. This week, Project Manager, David Barnes gives his views on the upcoming work:

This is the first of a series of updates to give you a feel for the work that’s going on to evaluate options for a new public alert system in the UK. We recognise that the way in which you go about your daily lives means that we need to consider innovative ways to get safety critical messages to you during an emergency. Thankfully these are rare in the UK, but as the National Risk Register shows, a diverse range of scenarios pose a risk to our lives so it’s important to make sure we have a wide range of response capabilities in place to deal with them.

Preparing for emergencies is a challenging role and I work with a variety of organisations in central government, the private sector and the voluntary sector to achieve this. However, it is the category 1 responders that do the vast majority of work to plan for and who will ultimately respond to emergencies. It’s for this reason that we are considering these alert capabilities as we need to provide front line agencies with access to the tools they need to keep the country ready. I’m delighted that I’ve had the chance to work with colleagues from EE, Vodafone and O2 Telefónica in this work and am grateful for their contribution to the project.

Over the next few weeks I hope to be able to give you an insight into the work we are doing along with the successes and challenges that we come across. If you have any views on this work please email us at: or via Twitter @UKResilience using #UKAlertTest.

4. Evaluating the trials

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

  • opinions from the mobile industry on the technical and corporate implications of introducing such a system
  • public views and thoughts on alert message content, method of delivery and resulting behaviour
  • views from emergency responders including how such a system would enhance their existing arrangements, the resources and training that might be required to manage it and when it could be most effectively used

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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